992 Atlantic Avenue (betw. Grand & Classon Aves.) Prospect Heights, Brooklyn
Several weeks ago, my sister slipped on ice. She smacked her head on the ground like an errant water balloon, bursting the neural pathways responsible for smell. “It’s like living in a Styrofoam world,” she said. A broken sniffer, however, would be a blessing when entering Prospect Heights’ Palava Hut.
This tiny Nigerian eatery/bar, located on car-crazy Atlantic Avenue and sandwiched between auto-repair shops, often smells like eau de fish market. The kitchen fries up steaming plates of water dwellers, which overpower the tiny seating area: an old luncheonette with a dining counter and two rectangular tables. Lesser nostrils may dash for the door, but remember: After five minutes, your nose acclimates. Fishy is now normal, which is fantastic, for now you can savor the joy that is Palava Hut.
In Africa, a palava hut is a town hall with a high, thatched roof and waist-high halls, so that everyone can catch the goings-on. On Atlantic Avenue, Palava Hut is one of the warmest, most welcoming establishments I’ve visited in months. Now, it’s not a bar in the traditional sense. There is no shiny, draft-beer dispenser, or rows of glowing liquor bottles. Hell, there’s not even a bartender.
What you find is a serve-yourself policy and a dusty, see-through fridge. It’s stocked with mini-pyramids of Guinness, Heineken and Beck’s in the stomach-pleasing 24-ounce size. Pay four bucks per bottle, grab a plastic cup, crack the beer’s cap with a Corona bottle opener and sit at a plastic-topped table. Now you can marvel at the exploded-curio-shop decorating scheme.
Wooden masks of ungulates hang from walls, near a dusty fax machine. Twisty diner stools long ago lost their seats, and now mismatched chairs cover the silver stumps. The well-spoken proprietor, Remy, can often be found resting her head on a clump of pillows, watching PBS on a tiny color TV. The scene is all grandma’s kitchen, if grandma lived in Nigeria.
During the daytime and early evening, Palava Hut sells gigantic plates of home-cooked vittles. Though I have yet to sample every delicacy, on one visit I tried fried rice, served alongside goat on the bone. It swam in a blandly named “red sauce.”
The okra-studded fried rice was savory and delicious—and large enough for two—while the goat was tender. The red sauce, however, was a five-alarm fire. “Don’t be fooled,” Remy said. “There are four kinds of pepper in there, most of them hot.” No shit. Beside my spicy goat goodness, Palava Hut offers pepper soup, cow’s feet, beef, traditional yam dishes and “land snails,” which French restaurants call “escargot.” And though the food is filling and relatively inexpensive (about $10 on average), I like visiting the Hut long after eating time ends.
The Hut becomes a more communal, conversational affair. You can drink 24-ounce Guinnesses until you need a calculator to keep count. And at $4 a pop, even po’ ass friends can drink up, surrounded by a cast of characters: cigar-chomping, suited men, famished deliverymen and Baba Jagun. He’s the owner’s brother, a middle-aged man with an infectious smile—and a famous lineage. During the ’80s, he drummed for Fela Kuti, the world-famous Nigerian musician who pretty much invented Afro-Beat. Baba Jagun calls patrons “my man,” and I feel a little awed by this obscure legend, happily toiling away on Atlantic Avenue, miles away from the stage.
Or not. Friday nights around midnight, a traditional Nigerian singer places a mike near the entrance and sets some speakers on a glass display case. Two percussionists pound out a hypnotizing drum beat that, combined with the singer’s soulful voice—it’s in the Al Green register, with a nonstop, gentle bounce—mesmerizes the room. Once, I was so entranced I nearly forgot to drink my beer. That’s possibly the finest compliment, for I am a very thirsty man.
And I have not yet had my fill of Palava Hut. Sure, it’s hardly a dictionary-defined bar. The décor is decrepit. The scent is, umm, off-putting. But did those negatives ever hamper Mars Bar or the Village Idiot? I’ve guzzled boatloads of beer at more traditional drinkeries, where customers are merely dollar signs. Not so at Palava Hut. Remy calls you “sweetie,” and Baba Jagun graciously grabs your empty bottles, ushering you to the fridge, where you’ll return again and again.