FliesThe way people get still when they try not to react, to keep cool. To not be seen.Turning up the volume on everything / I could stay here for such a long time.
Angel’s Share is often credited as a “trailblazer,” ushering in a new style of cocktail bar to New York. On closing night, Tony Yoshida, who opened and owns the bar, gave a speech in which he talked about the precision of Japanese cocktails and service. In opening Angel’s, he wanted to bring these styles to the US for the first time, though it took some trial and error to figure out how to do so. As Mr. Yoshida’s yakitori restaurant, Village Yokocho—which shared the same floor as the bar—became popular, he directed his staff to guide customers to Angel’s while they waited for a table. Word of mouth began to spread, and so the legacy of Angel’s Share began.
After my first tremulous visit in May of 2015, I began frequenting the bar religiously—more often than not weekly—and usually by myself.
Angel’s Share is not a place that you go to get smashed. It’s a place where you go to taste your drinks. I sipped cocktail after cocktail, learning the difference between shaken and stirred, parsing out notes of lavender, Japanese whisky, bitters, frothy egg white, plum wine. I was taught to sip my drink immediately, as soon as it was placed on the black cocktail napkin in front of me, even if I was busy talking or writing—a sign of respect, but also because the drink will “expire” over time; its flavor changing as it warms to room temperature or as its ice cube melts—and understood implicitly that I was to tip on the full bill even if I had been given comped drinks.
I learned the endless rotation of jazz music filling the room was reflected in the drinks on the menu. Each cocktail’s name was influenced by a jazz song, which seems an all-too-perfect metaphor for the precise skills that might be shared between making a balanced cocktail, shaken or stirred to a count, and the rhythmic interpretation required of a jazz musician’s fingers. One of the only drinks that’s been on the menu since I first visited, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, was named after the classic tune written by Jerome Kern and covered by The Platters, Nat King Cole, and Thelonious Monk.
When you first enter, you might notice a quality of smokiness—not in the air, but of the air. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is made by torching a small pile of cloves and bitters before inverting a brandy snifter over the aromatics. If you’ve ordered the drink, the bartenders lift the glass off the embers in front of you, smoke swirling up and out as the stirred old-fashioned variation is poured into its belly. The drink is strong and dark and, though I’d like to provide a better description for those who have never sipped it before, tastes more like the bar than it does anything else.
Even more than I learned about drinking, I grew into myself at Angel’s Share. As Rosie Schaap, the former Drink columnist for the New York Times Magazine, wrote in her memoir Drinking with Men, “More than anywhere else, bars are where I’ve figured out how to relate to others and how to be myself. They’ve not only shaped my identity, they’ve shaped my point of view—one that is profoundly optimistic about human kindness despite a healthy dose of skepticism.”
I had grown up an only child in Wyoming and Colorado, so I was used to a lot of time and space alone. While I’ve been extremely lucky with all of my roommates in New York, both during college and after, I found myself occasionally feeling trapped in the two-bedroom apartment I shared with four friends in the East Village. It wasn’t so much that I needed time without them, but that I needed time for myself. I claimed it by walking up six blocks on Second Avenue, making a left on St. Mark’s before turning onto Stuyvesant, and sitting at the Angel’s Share bar.
I often brought a book or my journal and would read and write, shyly making friends with the barbacks and bartenders between pages, expanding my palate and refining my tastes. It was always easy for me to get in, even on crowded Friday and Saturday nights, especially once I became friendly with the hosts—but as other single bar- and restaurant-goers are familiar with, there’s almost always space for one. I’d often find myself sitting next to other service industry folks and longstanding regulars. Over all my years, I only sat next to another single woman once or twice; usually I was sitting next to men, typically many years older than me.
I can’t pinpoint the exact reason why all of my interactions with these men were so positive, that I was never hit on or flirted with indelicately, but I have some guesses. Most likely, I think, is that they witnessed my friendliness with the bartenders and knew no one would put up with any weird shit thrown at me. But I would also like to think it had something to do with my confidence in the space.
As other single bar- and restaurant-goers are familiar with, there’s almost always space for one.
A lot of times, conversations would begin with someone asking what I was writing or reading. The men were not always creative people themselves—in fact, most often, they were not. I felt sometimes that I represented a path they could have followed but hadn’t; people who used to read, who wished to write. Perhaps this sounds arrogant, though I’m not trying to make any claims they were unsatisfied with their lives. Mostly just that, more often than not, we were so very different from one another. We were years, if not decades, apart in age; we were of different genders and had moved through the world with different life experiences, but we were also able to learn from each other in a place that allowed us to approach as equals. I found it exhilarating and satisfying, like trying on a particularly spectacular secondhand shirt.
One time I counseled a man at least ten years older than me through a recent breakup, helping him consider the split through a new lens. “You’re very wise for your age,” he told me. On several different occasions, I sat beside the man who had crafted the bartop with his own two hands. He narrated to me stories of pine, walnut, and mahogany, showing me pictures of new projects: colossal tabletops, regal kitchen cabinets.
Sometimes I’d stay late enough to be the last patron. I’d run around and blow out all the candles, handling the glass tea light holders like hot potatoes, before leaving the bar with my friend and grabbing a late-night slice or wandering around Westside Market, making jokes, making fun, checking out with a slab of crusty bread and a fancy butter or smelly cheese before hopping on the L train at Union Square, journeying to the black-painted walls in his Williamsburg apartment.
After I graduated from college, I moved away from New York and lived in Alabama for a year. I had never expected to love the city as much as I did, having come from such a vastly different childhood place, but I also felt I should try something new—plus I had no job prospects lined up, no idea of what career I wanted to pursue. One of my best friends had gotten an AmeriCorps job in which she’d be tending community gardens and teaching elementary students in downtown Birmingham. Knowing I had no plan, she convinced me to join her: “It’s cheap! You can write part-time and work part-time!”
And so I moved to Birmingham, not without some queasiness. On my last night at Angel’s, I wondered whether my friendship with the staff would remain. My first friend was planning to soon leave, helping to open up a new bar in Shanghai. Though I had shared many late-night toasts and tipsy conversations with his coworkers, I suffered from bouts of insecurity. I worried that they had only put up with me—treated me like family—because of him.
Months later, I found myself in Birmingham, itching for the perfect drink at 11 p.m. on a weeknight. I’d look out my bedroom window onto the dark, empty streets and know it wasn’t safe for me to take a stroll alone the way I could in the East Village—and that even if I wandered I wouldn’t find what I was looking for. I had certainly tried. I was working as a waiter at a sports bar and eventually worked as a cocktail waitress at one of the best bars in town, but it wasn’t the same. I made friends and shared shots of Fernet. I learned I liked pale ales, IPAs, and crisp pilsners on days heavy with humidity. I laughed and talked and ate, but I rarely wrote, and I did not feel at home.
After a year of trying to make Birmingham work, I returned to New York and moved into a Chinatown apartment two blocks away from Manhattan Bridge. In one of my first Angel’s Share journal entries after resettling, I wrote:
Coming here, I pulled my same old move, walking downtown toward home before turning back around to Angel’s. It is my solitary love, my most selfish indulgence. It is busy here, and while I am not particularly interested in staying out late, I want to stay long enough for it to calm . . .
This bar will always smell like Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. If I ever leave this bar, or it goes somewhere I can’t reach, and I smell that scent in many years, in a faraway city, it will bring me to my knees, like the smell of a long-ago lover or a long-lost son.
I needn’t have worried about not being accepted upon returning, though I made it back just in time to say goodbye to two bartenders who were preparing to start their own ventures. On the last night I visited the head bartender before she left, I brought her dark-hued calla lilies. She supplied me with pour after pour of Old Folks, my favorite stirred concoction, even though it was no longer on the menu.
The delicate balance of plum wine and scotch meandered over my tongue like Miles Davis’s trumpeted version of the jazz standard it’s named for. It’s a drink both sweet and smokey, fresh and aged. Just right for an end-of-era farewell, but celebratory enough for a new beginning too.
I have this weird thing where I kiss buildings goodbye—my own little pagan prayer. My parents divorced when I was about six and lived about nine hours apart. Whenever I left one house for the other, I’d find a quiet and alone moment and give a kiss to the white-painted walls. I’d whisper gratitudes, telling the house to keep my loved ones safe while I was away. Even with a life as privileged as my own, I understand that safety is not guaranteed, that it is perhaps always fleeting and may be gone in a fraction of a second. I do not pray to a god, but I guess I’ve found a sort of altar in the buildings that have fed me and given me joy and where I’ve luxuriated with those I love.
When I was at Angel’s the Sunday before it closed, I found myself overcome with the urge for ritual when I went to the bathroom, which always smells the same, though not of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes; they’ve consistently stocked Mrs. Meyer’s hand soap since I started coming. I remembered all my many pisses, all the joyousness and conversation I’d heard from the other side of the wallpapered walls. I exchanged the roll of empty toilet paper for a full one, like I had so many times before, and gave a thank-you to the toilet for (only once!) having cleanly flushed my drunken vomit.
After I washed my hands and succumbed to the always-aggressive hand dryer, I kissed my fingers, pressed my palm against the wall, and said thank you—thank you for holding me through so many stages of life. I had brought my parents here for drinks after my college graduation, cheersed happy-birthday wishes to many of my friends. My partner and I had daydreamed about whether we might be able to throw our future rehearsal dinner in the backside bar.
Just right for an end-of-era farewell, but celebratory enough for a new beginning too.
The thing is, my relationships with the people from Angel’s will go on. They will reopen somewhere new. Even if they don’t, they will start or work at other bars—many previous Angel’s Share bartenders have already opened up soon-to-become staples, like Gn Chan’s Double Chicken Please, and others are soon to arrive, like Takuma Watanabe’s Martiny’s—and I’ll be sitting in front of them, ordering a cocktail once again. We’ll message each other over Instagram and go out for shots or share some banging Thai food.
But my relationship with the bar itself is ending, and, if it hasn’t been overstated, it has been a home for me, more consistent and solid than any apartment I’ve moved in and out of over the years. It’s witnessed my mistakes, my silly decisions, my emotional scribbles. It’s witnessed my laughter and my love, the laughter and love of so many dedicated fans, friends, and family. And now, it will witness no more.
When we arrived for the last night of service on March 31, the line to get in extended down the stairs and out the sidewalk-level door. There were people eager to have their last drink and those who were hoping to snag their first before the final (final!) call. The room was stuffed with regulars, friends, and family when my partner and I finally made it in. When Mr. Yoshida stepped behind the bar to give his last remarks, everyone was rapt with attention.
He elaborated on his decision to make the bar sitting room only, for groups of four or less, though the tables had been pushed out of the way and the rules relaxed for this final night. He wanted his patrons to be able to converse, to connect. “When people are coming as a couple or as friends, they can carry on a conversation,” he said, “[otherwise] people forget about their relationships or friendships.”
Mr. Yoshida’s considerations certainly had their intended effect over the years. Without a mass of drunken strangers queuing behind me, begging for their next drink, I had the opportunity to make friends with the bartenders, with the people sitting beside me, and found a room in which to explore other avenues of myself. During many late nights, sipping cocktails, I’d find myself contemplating happiness, contentedness: What if the clock stops, if this moment never ends, what if we move together into some weird liminal purgatory where minutes ooze past like overly thickened simple syrup, where nothing more needs to be accomplished than what already has been?
After Mr. Yoshida spoke, his daughter, Erina, and the head bartender, Atsushi Nakayama, both gave their own closing speeches. They talked not about the success of the bar, but of the family they had found. Erina started working closely with the staff during the pandemic, and Atsushi described how generous Erina had been, how easily she became a member of the Angel’s family, before giving thanks to his other coworkers—calling out in particular the hosts and barbacks, whose work is so often unacknowledged but absolutely essential. All the patrons cheered and shouted each staff person’s name as liquor was poured into each awaiting mouth. Overall, it was a night of celebration. Though I had expected I might cry at some point, I found myself screaming and laughing along with everyone else instead. We all had our own memories. We were all saying thanks for what we had been given.
The friendship a patron builds with a bartender is transactional by nature, which is something we should all remember, no matter how often we frequent an establishment. I built friendships because I was a good customer: I said thank you, I tipped well. I treated the staff with respect and friendliness and so was treated the same in return—as it should be. The bar that Mr. Yoshida (and countless others) built provided an avenue for connection, but friendship can only be established on the familiar principle “I’ll take care of you so you’ll take care of me.”
While some people might determine there’s some fakeness or falsity involved in these relationships, they are no less valuable than companionship built anywhere else. We all want something, all need something from every friendship. Why not form one around a love of good drink, openness, and a desire to treat each other with fairness? Shouldn’t there be more of that in the world, especially these days, when my own personal health or contagion might have an impact on yours?
Not everyone drinks, but I hope everyone gets to know the blessing of a facility where you can go without judgment, where you will be taken care of. The people who have worked at Angel’s Share are professionals—truly top-notch bartenders, barbacks, and hosts. They work very hard and have worked very hard (often in a country that was not where they were born) to be where they are today. But most importantly, to me, they have become my friends, for which I am incredibly lucky. Some nights I visit and I am down; some nights they work and I can tell they are down too. On other nights, we move together in those most particular and rare moments of presentness, wherein you are not thinking about where you’ll go next or where you’d rather be. We meet together and say hello, exchanging a story or three. The night always ends with a small shot in an ornate silver glass: We clink cheers before tapping the bartop and throwing back mezcal or fine Japanese whisky. And we look each other in the eyes, smiling, and say, “Kampai!”