Henry Public opened in the fall of 2009 after a protracted publicity buildup; the space had been under renovation for months and locals eagerly anticipated the opening of this cocktail bar with benefits, brought to you by the same folks who run Brooklyn Social. This is one of many new and self-consciously historicist saloons serving food in Brooklyn, and this one pulls it off.
The bar and restaurant are stunning in a neo-nineteenth century steam punk way. Simple white wood walls and stolid oak booths in the raucous front bar reflect the glow from bare filament bulbs in sconces. The intimate back room has more oak tables, dark wood paneling and a small fireplace. Matthew Bradyesque tintype photos dot the walls.
Bartenders and wait staff do not exactly wear period clothes, but something about the way they put themselves together seems both pre-modern and ultra-hip. Facial hair is pervasive among the gents. They are serious about their work, answering questions in detail with the unsmiling, vaguely haunted look of battle-worn Civil War soldiers. They are sage, weary and old beyond their years.
The point of the place is good booze, throwback cocktails and foods that complement them. The small collection of single malts is not only good but also ventures beyond Scotland into the Hudson Valley: The eponymous Hudson whiskey from Tuthilltown Spirits is rich, hot and smooth on the tongue. There is white dog too, poteen to the Irish, in this case corn whiskey distilled around the corner by King’s County Distillery. It is bottled in handcrafty flasks that fit the aesthetic of the bar.
Cocktails are creative: The “King City Sour” is a delicious revival that uses rye instead of Scotch, with lemon, sugar, egg white and a float of port. There is the “Public Smash,” a potent drink combining bourbon (Henry Public stocks numerous obscure artisanal brands) with mint, maple syrup and one of the specialist bitters that cluster on the bar. The cocktails are $10 or $11--and oh, they only take cash, it being 1889 here.
All of the wines at Henry public are produced in New York State, which is both brave and fitting, for the quality of these wines has outrun consumer perceptions (some of the less congenial customers complain). Beer is not forgotten, and it has a British cast. These are not, however, British beers, but rather exemplary American iterations of British styles. The outstanding, hoppy Captain Lawrence Pale Ale is here, along with an interesting (if slightly sweet) Oatmeal Stout from Six Point and their “Righteous Rye” ale to go with all the rye based cocktails.
Henry Public makes its own cocktail nibbles. They are simple and delicious: small plates of radishes and junipered pickles, perfect French Fries and, best of all, home-roasted almonds that are crunchy, chewy, smoky. There are always fresh oysters, sometimes more than one variety to choose from.
Now they have a daily dinner special scrawled on the walls, something substantial like a John Bull pot roast and some optional sprouts for a little more money.
The standard ‘main course’ offerings would be funny, if everyone at Henry Public did not find it so important to be earnest. Listed on a lovely hand pressed Bill of Fare, the first four items under “Food, Sandwiches, Etc.” include the Hamburger Sandwich ($13), the Hamburger Sandwich, with cheese (a dollar more), the Hamburger Sandwich, with bacon (two more), and the deluxe Hamburger Sandwich with cheese and bacon (a fistful of dollars more.) There is also a Turkey Leg Sandwich and, even better, Marrow Bones on toast straight out of Fergus Henderson’s St. John playbook for a paltry $8--great with a piquant cocktail. Finally, there is an excellent Grilled Cheese Sandwich. A pile of them was relished by strollered families dining early one evening at Henry Public. The staff seemed to tolerate the younger set with the same detachedly intent attitude that they showed toward everyone else. Not that anyone is unfriendly; Bartenders remember their patrons and enthusiastically describe their drinks--in an elegiac way, for haste and excitability are unhip in twenty-first century Brooklyn. This is a place that, while evocative of an earlier time, could not exist in any but our own.
We go back and back to Henry Public, unfashionably early to watch the crowd swell around us, happy each time.