It`s not as easy as it used to be to run a bar on the Lower East Side. Between the growing chorus of noise complaints from residents and the new intensity of the NYPD’s crackdowns on underage drinking, at least one bar owner who used to make money hand over fist in the neighborhood is looking elsewhere for sustainable businesses. If you ask Rob Shamlian, one of the area’s most voracious entrepreneurs, he’ll immediately expound on the problems he’s encountered as the owner of Fat Baby, Spitzer’s Corner, Los Feliz and Mason Dixon.
"The community is very hostile and the cops are a nightmare," he explains. "We get harassed nonstop."
Now he’s setting up shop in Brooklyn, and he’s just opened Spritzenhaus, his first bar and restaurant outside of Manhattan. Given the climate on the LES, Shamlian decided his energies might be better spent elsewhere.
"I’m done with the Lower East Side," Shamlian says. "I’ve had enough."
The years leading up to this decision have been tumultuous ones for Shamlian. The former photographer entered the business in 2004 after living hand-tomouth for years and tiring of it. Because he’d seen his brother Will’s success opening Los Angeles bars, Rob chose to follow suit on the East Coast. He zeroed in on the Lower East Side, an area with which he is intimately familiar.
"I live down there. I spend all my hours down there. I know the crowd," Shamlian says. "I know what to do there."
Or, at least he knew. Shamlian chose to focus all of his attention on a three-block vicinity in an area that the blogs have dubbed "Hell Square."
Shamlian’s first nightlife venture was the aptly named Darkroom, a low-lit basement den on Ludlow Street that became a popular party spot when it opened in 2004. He parted ways with Darkroom in 2005, and later that year opened another space, Fat Baby, a block away on Rivington. Its cavernous multilevel structure made it a magnet for the barhopping hordes, and it quickly became a neighborhood fixture.
In 2007, Shamlian opened the mechanical-bull-equipped whiskey bar Mason Dixon, which instantly became a lightning rod for local residents’ growing discontent with the unruly masses of drunkards that had increased in the area.
"It was supposed to be a tongue-incheek type of thing, ‘Take the piss out of a mechanical bull on the Lower East Side,’" Shamlian explains. "It wasn’t meant to be a serious thing."
Though Shamlian was amused by the mechanical bull idea, neighbors were not. The condo residents who lived above the Essex Street bar began a very public and protracted legal battle with Shamlian over noise concerns and other complaints, and he says he was never able to finish Mason Dixon to his satisfaction because of it.
"The condo board… threw me into a lawsuit before I even started buildout," Shamlian says. "It was such a race to get it open so that I wouldn’t lose my license, it never even came close to hitting its potential. I kind of regret ever doing Mason."
But at the same time that Mason Dixon was faltering, Shamlian plunged into the restaurant world with Spitzer’s Corner, a gastropub at the intersection of Rivington and Ludlow streets he opened at his brother’s suggestion.
"It was supposed to be a European-style gastropub, and it kind of morphed into an American gastropub," Shamlian explains.
The American focus seems to have fueled the success of Spitzer’s Corner, which delivers upscale comfort food, from artisanal grilled cheese sandwiches to Kobe beef burgers, and a selection of 40 (mostly American) craft beers on tap. He continued his expansion into restaurants in 2009 with Los Feliz, a three-level taqueria and tequila bar that’s named after a Los Angeles neighborhood. And thus far, Los Feliz has, for the most part, thrived. But investing all of his resources into one neighborhood came with a price.
None of Shamlian’s spots has been immune from police crackdowns on underage drinking in the neighborhood. After receiving citations for alleged underage drinking violations, Shamlian says Spitzer’s Corner had to be turned into what’s essentially a bar in the evenings and no longer admits anyone under 21 after 8 p.m. Mason Dixon and Los Feliz were both shut down recently for alleged underage drinking, and though Los Feliz reopened, Shamlian decided to close the doors to Mason Dixon for good after expensive new security restrictions were imposed. Needless to say, his outlook on the LES has soured.
"Los Feliz is great, Spitzer’s is great, Fat Baby is doing really well, so I’ll keep those. But the second they become giant headaches to me, forget it," Shamlian says. "I’ll go where it’s a little happier."
That happy place is apparently Brooklyn. He ventured into Greenpoint to open a 6,000-square-foot beer hall called Spritzenhaus at the end of April.
"There’s other beer halls in this area," Shamlian says. "But it’s kind of like building a better mousetrap. It’s a beautiful place. It should do good business" While a space like Radegast Hall and Biergarten, which is only a dozen blocks away in Williamsburg, achieves the feel of an authentic Austro-Hungarian beer hall with its weathered dark wood interior and wide selection of Eastern European brews served in massive steins, Spritzenhaus’ industrial minimalism feels thoroughly American.
Shamlian says the behemoth bar and restaurant was inspired by a 1900s Vienna train station, but it looks more modern than retro and appears to be made in the U.S., which makes sense given that much of the interior was handcrafted by local artisans. The most intriguing aspects of the space are the two walls of windows that fold up to transform Spritzenhaus into an open-air beer hall with a view of McCarren Park across the street. But the openness also means that Spritzenhaus has become the noisy, boisterous new kid on the block.
Spritzenhaus has 100 taps, but offers only 25 drafts (which included more American craft beers than international choices on a recent evening) that are repeated four times along the 110-foot bar that winds through the space. Initially, drafts like Lagunitas IPA ($6) and Kstritzer Shwarzbier ($7) were delivered in smaller-than-a-pint, 14-ounce glasses, but the glassware has since been upgraded to include larger mugs and traditional Weiss glasses. The menu of bottled brews offered more German and Austrian possibilities, and the list will expand over time.
And since no beer hall, Americanized or not, would be complete without sausages, Spritzenhaus’s new chef Rolf Weithofer, formerly the executive chef of Prime Meats, is rolling out a menu of bratwurst, pretzels and updates on traditional dishes like sauerbraten and schnitzel, as well as oysters, which will be offered mostly because they complement the beer.
Shamlian has learned a few lessons from his clashes in the LES. Spritzenhaus faces McCarren Park and is surrounded by warehouses on both sides, so the bar and restaurant has no nearby residential neighbors who might complain about noise. And thus far, the local police and community board have been nothing but friendly.
"It’s so welcoming," Shamlian says.
"It’s renewing my faith in authorities. It’s a whole different deal."
Next year, Shamlian and his wife are moving to Brooklyn Heights, and he says he plans to open additional spots in the borough, eventually moving all of his business out of the LES entirely.
"I’m going to phase out of that area," Shamlian says. "I’m going to get the hell out of there."
33 Nassau Ave. (betw. Guernsey and Dobbin Sts.), Brooklyn,