It's 9:30 PM on East 54th Street: you can hear the tinkle of piano keys and someone singing Billy Joel. Follow the music down a set of stairs, through the swinging double doors of Bill’s — and back to a time when piano bars weren’t such a novelty in New York.
If this were the 1920s you would have to knock and give a password to enter what was then known as Bill’s Gay Nineties — an 1890s-themed speakeasy. (Can you believe they were doing retro back then?) Today, the false wall is gone and the original glass doors reveal the bar where an old (and sometimes cranky) bartender turns out drinks beneath a low ceiling. There’s a coat check girl and a manager by the door. It still feels very much like the speakeasy of yore.
Within half an hour, the vibe at Bill’s can change from a sleepy bar to a full-on party. On a recent evening I felt like I was living the ending of It’s A Wonderful Life: people suddenly arrived in droves, the piano struck up, and we were all singing together like lifelong friends — even the old bartender was smiling. Bill’s attracts both young and old (I even spied a few trust fund babies who’d snuck across the street from Graydon Carter’s Monkey Bar — no doubt in search of cheaper hooch!).
But this is New York, baby — and there’s always another party to hit. On a quiet stretch of East 84th Street, you’ll find another piano bar: Brandy’s, a cozy place with red walls and black wainscoting. At midnight this joint is jumpin’ with a decidedly young crowd in their 20s and 30s.
But Brandy’s isn’t a place like, say, Marie’s Crisis in The Village, where people just crowd around the piano and sing along. Here, the piano player calls people up one by one — bartenders, wait staff, customers — and, man, can you hear some professional singing!
The other night a waitress sang a fabulous parody of Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain,” changing the words to “You’re So Gay.” But this piano bar isn’t stuck on the past: When I left they were doing Lady Gaga.
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