Passing the Bar: Don Hill’s

Written by Matt Harvey on . Posted in Eat & Drink, Posts.

Back in September, nightlife blogs buzzed with sweeping pronouncements about the impact a rebranded Don Hill’s— the two-decades-old Greenwich Street institution newly reopened with capital provided by club mavens Nur Khan and Paul Sevigny—would have on the moribund Manhattan demimonde. Setting the tone for the blitz, Khan told one local paper, “There hasn’t been a CBGB’s or a Max’s or a Mudd Club in so long.” In the same article, Sevigny wondered how “hotel bars [had become the new] cool places to be in New York City.”

So the partnership between the world-weary, blessedly still standing Don Hill (who has provided on-the-scene, drink-in-hand management at high-profile nightspots since he helmed the Cat Club in the mid-1980s) and the dynamic two late-aughties entrepreneurs would rescue Manhattan from the clutches of such influential, glitzy spots as, well Khan’s Rose Bar, which sits in the Gramercy Hotel. (Just this week, Khan announced he would no longer work with the upscale club.)

Don Hill’s infrastructure has definitely gotten a tune-up. Formerly two dingy rooms, consisting of a bar and stage, the space has been blacked out, laser-filled and smoke injected. Blinding strobes go off every few minutes. At 3 a.m. on a recent Friday, the dance floor was still filled and the bells and whistles—as well as bassheavy techno mixes of alt-rock favorites— kept the crowd moving, if slowly. The disconnect created by foggy blackness interspersed with seconds of blinding white is jarring; and taken together with a booming, bass-heavy rock soundtrack, there was a stoned, E-fueled vibe.

The kids felt it in their bones and were trying. Girls made out half-heartedly. Going overboard, a guy in a white T-shirt kept trying to swing off one of the steam-pipes, only to be pried off by a bouncer. Two creepy-looking dudes with identical red, bushy beards loped across the dance floor chasing red laser beams. But there was no getting around it: Something felt missing from the mix. There’s too much smoke and mirrors to figure out if anything interesting is really going on. Maybe that’s the point.

It’s still a great space and the upgrades have only increased the chances of the right promoter/DJ changing everything. It’s happened before, in the early-aughts. Back then, hip dance nights like Tiswas (and, we hate to admit, MisShapes) rescued the club from near oblivion; it had been coasting for years. Doing away with bands for the most part seems a choice more borne of economic necessity than blind allegiance to dance music, and the banquettes and stripper poles set atop what was formerly the stage are faintly ridiculous.

Standing there in the fog, I couldn’t help but remember one of the coolest nights out of my life—hanging out there when I was about 18. On stage, Donovan Leitch, fronting Nancy Boy, was doing his best “Young Americans” styled-moves, while his guitarist sang about smoking freebase. For some reason, a brunette Scandinavian model who I’ve since convinced myself was Helena Christensen talked to me in between numbers. I clung to my hip to stop my leg from trembling, but that just made my drink shake. I looked up: It didn’t matter, no one cared that I was shaking in my boots, and I calmed down. Everyone was having fun. Thinking about it, I realized what the problem with Don Hill’s was: Everything—its shabby chairs, its DayGlo pop art, its techno-Strokes mixes— is a little too curated, too forced, too self-referential. So these kids have to try a little too hard. But if they do, it seems like they might just get it right.

>> Don Hill’s

511 Greenwich St. (at Spring St.), 212-219-2850.