The Anatomy of a Perfect Bar
How to drink, according to David Coggins.
It's Tuesday after work and we're tucked into a corner at New York's small and atmospheric Great Jones Cafe with a Campari (him) and a Shaggy (Blenheim Ginger Ale #3 with rum—me). "The reason why I love this bar—and the reason I like a lot of bars—is because it's small," says David Coggins, author of the new book Men and Style. "This bar seats about eight people, and that feels like the right size. A good bar should be intimate, there should be one bartender. If I come to a place like this, a lot of it has to do with the intimacy of it. That, and the food is surprisingly not bad."
A longtime fixture in New York's men's fashion media's inner circles, Coggins has earned a reputation as one of the industry's leading tastemakers—as a writer, editor, consultant, and creative collaborator (his Drake's With D. Coggins and Sleepy Jones & David Coggins pieces arrive in stores soon). His first book, Men and Style, published this week, is about fashion as identity, family history, and how influential men have cultivated a sense of place in the world through social signifiers and sartorial decision-making.
He also writes about drinking—and the most stylish places to do it.
"The most important thing about a bar is that it suggests the better nature of drinking: conviviality, civility, with a lack of inhibition and a basic surge of optimism and solidarity," Coggins writes. As for the company, "Good bartenders understand human frailty—that is, after all, what drives their trade—and they use that bracing familiarity to found a professional but not superficial relationship."
While he counts the now-defunct Oak Room at The Plaza and the St. Regis New York's pre-reno King Cole Bar as two of his favorites—"When New York feels like it's less of itself, that's not a good sign," he says of the Oak Room's closure—Coggins, in fact, also embraces a more down-to-earth vibe.
"We have a cabin in Wisconsin, and there are bars there that are really—where I don't think that a drink costs more than $2," he says. "There's one where when the Green Bay Packers score a touchdown, everybody in the bar gets a shot of peach schnapps—and we're talking Sunday at noon. I really seek out dives wherever I am—whether it's Wisconsin, New York, or Tokyo."
In fact, for someone in the industry who has notoriously strong opinions on men's fashion, Coggins is a surprisingly democratic drinker—his bar dealbreakers are few and leave generous leeway for exceptional, uh, effort. "Bars with themes are generally not good," he writes. "Though there is a bar in London with a fierce Austrian alpine ethic that is an utterly compelling place if you're in the very specific mood to hear 'Edelweiss' sung by the elderly owner in his leiderhosen, accompanied by synthesizer and cowbells."
Other things to be wary of? Televisions ("They attract grown men wearing the jerseys of sports teams—which is not a good direction for civilization."), bars without women ("Even if women aren't in your plan, they radiate atmosphere."), and suspicious finger foods ("Snacks should not turn your fingers orange."). "I think you want a different thing from a bar when you get older," Coggins says. "I joke with my friends that now, we look for bars that are less crowded and less loud," especially when you're looking for what he calls "a quiet place of refuge" and "a respite from a world moving too fast."
"Drinking by yourself is wonderful," Coggins says. "I find, in a bar, you want to be in a place with other people, but not always talk to them."
That's not always the easiest task, especially living in New York City. "That's the funny thing about people who live in New York—we've got these very specific ways of avoiding crowds," he says. "The Rusty Knot is owned by my friend Taavo [Somer]. When it opened, it was a big deal—Lebron James went and so did the Olsen twins—I avoided it, it was too happening. Then I heard from somebody that it was open during the day, so I would go on Mondays—I would take the New Yorker and sit in the booth right inside the door, and there was never anybody there. The staff would have their meeting in the opposite corner and, when we later became friends, Taavo told me, 'We would be having our weekly meeting and you'd be sitting in the booth by the door, and I asked them, 'Who is that guy? Does he work here? Are we even open?"