There are certain streets in New York that I consistently wander back to. Whether meeting for the Negroni happy hour at Dante, trying my luck getting into the 7 p.m. show at the Comedy Cellar, or grabbing some late-night falafel at Mamoun’s, MacDougal Street is one of those concrete stretches.
Because of its wide range of attractions, MacDougal is perpetually packed with tourists and tipsy NYU students. Those hordes are not exactly my scene, but life keeps drawing me back to this historic, energized, and vibrant street. I can confidently say, though, that I perfected a night out in Greenwich Village this week: an evening away from the crowds while still experiencing the best the neighborhood has to offer. Here are the spots I hit.
Stop 1: Drink Craft Beer at 124 Old Rabbit Club
Descend the stairs and open the door marked with a white rabbit painted clandestinely on the upper-right corner. 124 consists of one long bar lined with rickety stools and two cramped tables at the front and back. Brick walls are left exposed, tin tiles still cover the ceiling, and wood floors and the bar top are charmingly unkempt.
I love beer, but the extent of my understanding only goes so far as recognizing that certain brews have some hops in them. The menu here consists of only craft beers and changes nightly based on the inventory. After a pointlessly long analysis of its bottled beer selections, I turned to the bartender. He was extraordinarily knowledgeable—and didn’t once scoff at my total confusion. He briefly surveyed the flavors, hops, and weight my booze buddy and I were looking for, and whipped up an off-menu Finback and a La Trappe Trappist Witte that perfectly matched our needs. His honesty was further displayed when a patron asked for a shot and he replied, “The only thing we have is downright horrible, but it gets the job done.” He proceeded to join in on the misery.
Oh, and Ryan S. from Yelp, I concur that “the bathroom is terrifying.” Come with an adventurous palette, empty stomach, and…full bladder…for a complete experience.
Stop 2: Sing Along at the Cafe Wha? Bob Dylan Tribute (and Maybe Shed a Tear)
Dodge past the NYU crowds on MacDougal and, again, head below ground to the revered Cafe Wha? Sit down in a bouncy, torn-up red booth and order a Blue Moon, which will taste a bit nondescript after your craft beer experience across the way. Cafe Wha? made a name for itself by making a name for others; legends like Dylan, Springsteen, and Hendrix first gained popularity after performing in the space. Although artists are more likely to be discovered on YouTube than in underground Greenwich Village music halls these days, the house band (appropriately called the Cafe Wha? House Band) is top-notch and can run the crowd through Motown, reggae, and rock all in one night.
Living a hop, skip, and a jump away from Cafe Wha?, many of my weeknights start here. I was always impressed with the house band’s ability to get jaded New Yorkers on their feet dancing in minutes, but my most memorable visit was the first time I encountered the Bob Dylan Tribute by Pete Ayers. It was a Thursday in late winter, and I took refuge in Cafe Wha? while waiting for my perpetually late friends to arrive for our dinner date, which was to be J.G. Melon burgers and crinkle-cut fries.
I don’t know if it was the fact that Bob Dylan brings back a roaring nostalgia for my summer camp, or maybe partially related to my rapid guzzling of two beers on an empty(ish) stomach, but the first note of “Blowin’ in the Wind” brought tears to my eyes. Ayers, a daytime waiter at Caffe Reggio, transforms into Dylan with a man bun by night. (I guess Brooklyn hipsters are the new Village bohemians.) He transports the room to January 1961, the first time Dylan performed at Cafe Wha?, offering the history of the lyrics before each song. Ayers’s personal interpretations are so spot-on that it feels as though Bobby is speaking through him.
Go with a crew, go alone, go on a date—this monthly event is a New York moment even locals won’t want to miss. The next show is September 14.
Stop 3: Indulge in the Black Label Burger at Minetta Tavern
Although the burger at J.G. is epic, a night as perfect as this deserves a kicked-up dinner. About four steps from the Cafe Wha? entrance you’ll find yourself at the door of Minetta Tavern, Keith McNally’s ode to the classic Parisian bistro. Checkered floors, pristine white tablecloths, caricatures sporatically placed on the walls, and lamps spreading golden light yet again take you far, far away from the buzz of the street—and, generally, the outside world.
My friend and I snagged a seat at the bar and ordered some grilled Island Creek oysters and two Black Label Burgers. The oysters were mild in flavor, but the pancetta-Fresno chile butter livened them up. Although the dish was not a standout, it fulfilled its purpose—a warm-up for the heavenly, decadent goodness arriving next.
The Black Label Burger definitely lives up to its fame. Let’s start with the bun. It is expertly toasted and fluffy, and has a bit of a sweetness almost reminscent of challah. Its light crunch soaks up the juices from the medium-rare, prime dry-aged beef and sugary caramelized onions. The patty is not for those who prefer a thin, backyard barbecue burger. Every bite of this meaty masterpiece is an equal struggle between heaven and hardship—the hardship rooting from the underlying knowledge that each bite takes you closer to the end.
In happier news: The chocolate soufflé for two awaits post-burger. Then perhaps close your eyes when you get the bill.