LIQUOR, BB GUNS and goldfish. It doesn’t seem like the smartest combination outside of rural Kentucky until the context is revealed: These elements are all part of Manhattan’s midway-themed bar Carnival, located directly above Bowlmor near Union Square. Now all the thrills you experienced as a child when your parents would drag you away from television to visit the local county fair are centrally located in one fantastical watering hole.
Sugary treats! Seizure-inducing lights! Scary clown faces! The only thing missing is a cadre of disfigured militia members wandering the grounds with their practically feral offspring.
Actually, Carnival’s official line is that it’s dropping a big fat heap of Coney Island into Manhattan, which is why the nightly entertainment is more traditional and classic than your average suburban Ferris Wheel soundtrack (like Poison or Marshall Tucker Band). Stilt walkers and jugglers roam the floor and vie for your attention along with sword swallowers, glass eaters and street magicians.The games of chance are pretty standard, though—seemingly rigged shoot ’em ups and knock ’em overs boasting the requisite cheaply made stuffed animals as prizes. Cotton candy-flavored drinks will help to ease the pain of losing and being berated by Carnival’s obviously professionally trained barkers (if you can afford the drinks, that is, most go for around $14 a pop and there’s no bracelet available for unlimited return trips to the bar).
But this place isn’t just for soused adults looking to relive horrible summer date memories with novelty foodstuffs like alcohol-soaked snow cones and pulled pork sandwiches. During the day, Carnival opens the place up to kids and lets the yard monsters have their fun. If you know a child who’s been dying to learn the lost art of trapeze, look no further (short of Ringling Brothers or Clown College, I guess). Carnival hosts parties and private events for both young and old, generally in its exclusive “Funhouse” area. Alas, if you want to see costumed animals playing cheesy rock music, you’ll have to bring your own animatronic figures.
Come to think of it, that’s a great barometer to decide your Carnival patronage. If you can afford to own rock ‘n’ roll animal robots for your personal amusement, you can probably safely visit Manhattan’s new circus bar without feeling totally ripped off. But for the rest of us, the $10 cover, drinks and $4 game tickets add up. And how about that five-floor stair climb and Studio 54-style dress code? They never made me wear a collared shirt at the Volusia County Fair, and that sucker always had homemade pies and children’s science projects to look at. For a guy who once spent a day visiting museums around here in pajama pants, Carnival’s dress code is absolutely laughable.
Admittedly, the bitterness on display in this review could stem from Carnival’s lack of rides, which you can’t fault, considering the location is an enclosed space and not a giant grassy field. Still, the draw would be more enticing had it a Ferris wheel or a Gravitron on which to lose your proverbial lunch. Perhaps the owners can look into annexing the roof for that true carnival experience. The Manhattan skyline could use one of those giant mushroom swing deals or a rickety wooden roller coaster. Then they’d be bringing in the disfigured militia members by the truckload.
110 University Pl. (betw. E. 12th & E. 13th Sts.), 212-255-8188.
The Big Topless: Carnival recreates a circus just below Union Square.