Photography: Noah Kalina
Debuting at the number three spot in the Australian Bartender magazine World’s Top 20 Bars feature in ’08, this subterranean speakeasy-style bar proves that you don’t need a red carpet, a VIP room or even a doorway onto the street to attract the most discerning drinkers in the big apple. You need good drinks, personable bartenders, and stuffed wildlife.
Entrance to PDT is gained through a slightly sleazy looking, but evidently successful hot dog joint next door, Crif Dogs (‘knuckle sandwiches are free!’), where you can get your New Jersey-style fried wiener served with bacon, avocado and sour cream, then proceed to get mustard all over the vintage Pac-Man machine.
If you’re here for cocktails, however, check no-one is following you and slip into the Hitchcock-era phone booth on the left hand wall. You dial, you wait, and hopefully you’re admitted by the maitre’d through a secret door in the back of the booth, which is monitored by a camera. Inside, bartenders/managers Jim Meehan (ex-Gramercy Tavern and Pegu Club), Don Lee and John Deragon are doing wonderful things with all manner of fine hooch, so our judges say, and you can order up Crif dogs by way of bar food.
The two halves of this improbable twinset share an owner in Brian Shebairo. The hot dog joint came first, starting life as a joke between Brian and his friend, the owner of a kosher bar on the Lower East Side, that they should “sell hot dogs in the alley”. A few months later, Brian was tooling along St. Marks Place in the East Village on his motorbike and happened across an open basement storefront, which was to become Crif Dogs. Six years on, Shebairo took over the neighbouring tenancy, formerly housing a “bubble tea, egg roll and dumpling joint” called Jenny’s Café, and opened PDT, which again, he designed and project managed on his own. It just celebrated its first birthday on 24 May.
Originally, Brian had planned a simple “offshoot of Crif Dogs, serving beer and shots to quench the thirst of hot dog hungry clientele”. He gutted the space, exposing the brick walls and fireplace, and installed a herringbone wooden paneled ceiling to cover the soundproofing, black leather seating booths and a 13 seat bar with four beer taps and enough shelf space to open “a focused operation”. This became considerably more focused when Brian brought in Jim Meehan to outfit “the guts of the bar”, set up a beverage programme, and hire and train staff. Two became four with the recruitment of the talented John Deragon and Don Lee, who helped develop the drinks to the standard they are today.
PDT is perhaps best described as old school refinement with an art school twist. The tables, for example, are lit by mini lightboxes, and the bathrooms are decorated floor to ceiling with fractured mirror tiles. Brian’s pal Billy sold him a selection of oil paintings, “found objects” and taxidermy to decorate the nooks and pedestals of the room, with extra stuffed animals coming from a house Brian purchased in Vermont.
The space comfortably seats 43, the operative word being ‘comfortably’ – tables are reservation-only and numbers are capped to ensure guests can always move around freely and wait staff can get to the tables. “We were fond of Milk & Honey and Angel’s Share, so it felt like a no-standing policy would work with our concept,” explains Meehan.
“We wanted to attract a mix of locals, industry and bar hoppers and felt that the best way to do so was by taking reservations for tables and leaving seats open at the bar for folks in the neighbourhood. The goal was to build a business that rewarded those who really wanted to come.”
The phone booth, says Meehan, is just a “manifestation of Brian’s sense of humour”. “We did out best to make sure that the people who come through the door are there for drinks,” he continues. “The anything-goes attitude at Crif Dogs is curtailed in the bar by the etiquette policy posted in the bathroom. At first, we were concerned that the dynamic between the spaces might cause tension, but as time has gone by, a number of cocktail geeks have found a greater appreciation for hot dogs, and vice versa.”