Up in the Old Five Guys
In the West Village, on the corner of Bleecker and Barrow where 7th Ave slices its way across a narrow grid of one-ways, stands a rectangular two-story of bright red brick. Like many buildings in Manhattan, the structure has stuck around far longer than anticipated—since 1829, to be exact, when a lawyer named Charles Oakley erected four dwellings along the southwestern edge of the block. Unlike its three siblings, 296 Bleecker has since been reduced from its original five floors, due to what the Greenwich Village Designation Report called “defective walls.” This report from 1969 also declared, in a bit of premonitory phrasing: “As a restaurant, it serves its purpose in the community, although completely out of scale with its neighbors.” Anyone who’s ever felt inferior to their fellow New Yorkers will take solace in the fact that this building suffers from a similar affliction.
These days, its interior is a Five Guys. Given the history, it’s a bit of a letdown, but given Manhattan real estate, it’s not unexpected. It’s also not unexpected that we—my girlfriend and I—frequent its counter, as it’s one block away from her place. I don’t recall at what stage we succumbed to our base instinct for mass-produced slop, but it’s since become a staple. She works a demanding job, one that often requires travel, and so it follows that she wants something easy after a long meeting or flight. As a writer, I have less of an excuse. Perhaps once a week, we shuffle down to the corner, where we each swallow a burger and share a vanilla shake and Cajun fries. She wears sweatpants, and I try not to let our orange fingerprints on the disposable cup tickle my neuroses too much. I wouldn’t call the food good, but, from some combination of GMOs and nostalgia, we keep going back.
As with most of this city, the locale offers more than meets the eye. Beyond the register, back by the punch-code restroom, ascends a staircase gesturing up to a second floor, where fluorescent light gives way to dim bulbs, and you find yourself in an alcove of slender booths and glittering bottles. Two chandeliers hang overhead, below fern-swathed skylights. Eclectic photos adorn the walls: Martin Luther King Jr. brandishing a peace sign, a bloodstained car in the snow, Bill Murray in the movie Stripes. There’s a pseudo-fireplace, over which rests a portrait of a stuffy-looking raccoon. It’s a speakeasy—though historically a speakeasy indicated the prohibition of alcohol, and we’re nearly a century past that. In the modern day, a speakeasy is a place that pretends to be a secret.
If this sounds cool, it’s because it objectively is. Perhaps it’s gauche to position the word objective beside the word cool, but at a certain point we must concede that some entities are cool, while others are not. And perhaps it’s a residual effect of high school, but I’ve always considered myself to be in the latter category. Regardless, it’s telling that I had no idea about this speakeasy until I was sitting there with my milkshake, noticing a disproportionate subset of people heading toward the restroom. And what’s more, these people were specifically well dressed. Heels, frilled blouses, curled hair. Loafers, dress shirts, gelled hair. Leather coats, leather gloves, leather pants. It’s not a fetish club—leather just seems to be back in style.
After a few visits, I went to investigate.
I climbed the stairs and found myself face-to-face with a hostess, tapping impassively at her iPhone. My time in the service industry had trained me to stay off electronics while on the clock, but now it seems to be admissible—and, in New York, possibly encouraged. “I just wanted to see what was up here,” I told the hostess. She replied with a glance that suggested this to be a sweet, if ignorant, endeavor. “So this is a bar?” I asked. In her defense, this was something an ignoramus would ask. I was sporting jeans, and a baby blue shirt with a bulldog and the word Spirituality printed on it. I’d picked it up at a Chinese market. I got the sense that if I tried to purchase a drink I’d be told: “Oh, we don’t accept that kind of money.”
Since then, I’ve busied myself with guessing who among those entering the restaurant is here for the Five Guys, and who is here for the speakeasy. It’s a fun game for Ri and I to play, because it involves judging people on looks alone, which, if it were an Olympic event, I imagine we’d qualify. It isn’t always who you’d expect. Some of the immaculately-dressed clientele truly are there for a shake. Some of the pajama-clad patrons plan to drink a costly cocktail. Sometimes Middle America tourists—we’re talking fanny packs here—really are hip to the underground bar scene. Sometimes an NYU undergrad and his parents aren’t there for a taste of home but rather a clandestine beverage. It’s these pairings that surprise me most—though I suspect there are some who have a more festive relationship with their families. My folks wouldn’t be caught dead on either floor.
There seems to be this pervasive mentality in New York that in order to fully appreciate the city, one has to locate the epicenter of its fluctuating style. The undiscovered gem, the next big thing. Pioneers went west to find gold in the ground, but I guess they circled back east to find the diamond in the rough. They didn’t have Instagram then, but they’re making up for it now.
We have a friend who’s rather taken with these types of experiences. She regales us with stories of saloons hidden beneath the floor, of bars soaring in the sky—apparently the best places don’t exist at sea level. She tells us about one you gain access to through a vending machine. She tells us about another where they text you an hour beforehand with a location, then swing by in a van and dispose of you at a second location. I call this kidnapping, but I guess others call it a fun night out. Now, whenever we pass a particularly abundant trash can, I say to Ri: “Maybe there’s a speakeasy in there.”
Neither of us find much appeal in these outings, even if Ri resides in a neighborhood that does. The West Village is full of newcomers who either stumbled into wealth or couldn’t escape it if they tried—those who will wait half an hour for a subpar bagel when they could easily make one at home. There are tourists, too, but most of them are just here to see Friends exteriors in the wild. Regardless, Ri cherishes the region, because it’s beautiful, particularly in the spring when everything is in bloom. And it’s surreal to walk the slim streets with her, as if someone made a mistake and let me into a world I was only supposed to view via Bob Dylan album covers. In this way, I’ve stumbled into something too.
Ironically enough, Ri doesn’t fall into either of the aforementioned groups. She subleases a split-level studio for a fraction of its price. I won’t say what the actual cost is, but I will say that the difference is more than my rent. The original tenant left curtly for his home country of India, saying that New York winters were too cold, and he had some unspecified legal matters to attend to. The weather must’ve been very cold, or the legal matters very unspecified, because he left all of his possessions—including his spices in the kitchen and his condoms in the bathroom. He said he liked Ri enough to sublease for so little, which both flattered and disturbed me. A few months later he texted to say he’d lost his job, and needed to start selling off his belongings to raise some capital. Unfortunately we’d thrown away the condoms by then.
The whole situation was odd, and a bit unnerving, but it struck me as par for the course. New York is full of people who come to discover that elusive center, whatever they think it may be, only to stagger and stutter and ultimately leave. This, I think, is what critics mean when they say New York will chew you up and spit you out. Some people are so desperate to get where the van is taking them that they haven’t considered if there’s gas in the tank.
When Ri was looking for apartments, we met with a girl who was subleasing her half of a two-bedroom on Houston. These appointments were always horribly awkward: one step above a transaction, one below a connection. As we waited in the elevator, Ri asked the girl why she was leaving, the subtext being: insects, noise, crazy landlord? Instead, the girl leaned against the wall and said: “New York isn’t what it used to be.” She sighed, as if a friend had expired prematurely. She was going back to LA.
I heard several remarks like this during my first year in New York—the pandemic year, I guess you’d call it. I never knew what they meant. Central Park hadn’t sunk into the earth. Katz’s offered takeout. A city was still a city. But then, of course, I knew exactly what they meant. They couldn’t revel in the throbbing miasma they’d been promised. At best, they sat in the frigid night, shivered over a kale salad, and pretended it was the peak of luxury. Whenever I encountered this, I felt pulled in two directions—the sort of wrestling match that pits your internal compass against your external desire. On the one hand, I was thankful that I didn’t identify with their definition of fulfillment. On the other hand, I kind of wished I did.
Five Guys was established in 1986 in Arlington, Virginia by a husband and wife, and, by proxy, their four sons. The husband and his boys comprised the titular five guys; the father purportedly started the business to spend time with them, though that’s the sort of mythology a conscientious customer has to question. In any case, despite franchising in 2002, the chain is still family-owned and -operated—in fact, the family had a fifth son and now these five oversee all operations. One suspects that the patriarch either retired or gawked at the idea of choosing accuracy over marketing.
It wasn’t until Ri and I became regulars that I recalled my own history with this particular burger joint. A decade earlier, my senior year of high school, a cluster of us would congregate at their newly-opened location—usually on Friday nights, where we’d wait around hoping someone could conjure up a party for us to weasel into. In a way that can only occur at that age, each of us had a definitive persona: Luke was the music guy, Matt was the sports guy, James was the gamer guy, Charlie was the stoic guy, and I—to my mind—was the disillusioned guy. It isn’t lost on me that we were five, though if we realized this back then we didn’t discuss it. It was already rather lame to be loitering there, and to mention the coincidence would be to break whatever spell those bleached walls cast. We fell out of touch soon after, but their burgers and free peanuts sustained us at least for a time. Looking back, I appreciate this ritual more than most of that year, and I like to think the founding partners would smile upon our devotion—if not in 2011 then at least in 1986, when the aim of their business was family rather than finance.
Now, though, I imagine they’d be less enthused about the condition of their restaurant, at least in the West Village. Gone are the free peanuts. So, in my opinion, are the fresh ingredients. Nobody’s to blame, except maybe the five guys: the employees are ridiculously overworked and needlessly understaffed, inundated by delivery orders; the assembly line has all but broken down. I’ve entered the regrettable age and social class where I’m incensed by most inconveniences, but in this case, when our order doesn’t arrive correctly—or doesn’t arrive at all—I just feel bad. It’s perhaps the busiest intersection in the area, and the workers have been hung out to dry.
In contrast, one floor above, the speakeasy sails smoothly. It was founded in 2014 by two friends, Adam Fulton and Gavin Moseley, who thereafter christened it the Garret, making use of this rather archaic word: “a top-floor or attic room, especially a small or dismal one (traditionally inhabited by an artist).” Rather surprisingly, the West Village spot is one of three Garret pop-ups. I wouldn’t call it franchising, but they’ve clearly branched out.
A simple Google search pulls up numerous articles about the Garret: “Five Guys Burgers West Village NYC location has a secret hidden bar,” “I went to an NYC speakeasy hidden above a Five Guys,” etc. Here, where Fulton and Moseley are interviewed, they’re quick to eschew the typical nightlife connotations. “The Garret isn’t a bar that shuts anyone out or demands a certain level of perceived sophistication from its guests,” one article claims. “We’re not a pinkies-in-the-air kind of place,” Fulton is quoted as saying. In expression of this ethos, the duo crafted the suit-clad raccoon and named him the owner: Rocco, a character who represents “someone cooler than us.” Both Fulton and Moseley, and their manager, have rings featuring Rocco’s portrait. Moseley has a tattoo.
Sometimes I wonder what the staff of these establishments—Five Guys and the Garret—think of each other. Do they talk at the end of a shift? Do they roll their eyes at the same patrons? Do they trade drinks for shakes, resent their counterparts, pity them? Depending on the day and time, it could be both. In all likelihood, though, I doubt they think of each other at all. One because they see no reason to, and the other because they simply don’t have time.
If I’m being honest, I wasn’t discouraged by moving to New York during a pandemic. In fact, I was rather grateful. If the city was dead, that seemed like a pretty good time to arrive. It took some of the pressure off: the pressure to soak up America’s jewel as much as feasibly possible, regardless of money or time or exuberance—and, most importantly, the pressure to do it correctly. Don’t go to Times Square. Forget about the Statue of Liberty. Central Park is acceptable, but don’t make a huge deal out of it. Never go to Brooklyn, unless you live in Brooklyn, in which case never leave Brooklyn.
The problem is that living with this outlook is completely untenable. Nobody can soak up everything all the time—and if there are people that can, they certainly aren’t the people I attract. There need to be times when you’re simply adhering to your routine, filling in the doldrums, wearing sweatpants to eat a burger. If every moment of your existence is consumed by some kind of majestic, high-flying experience—an experience that most relegate to a few days a year—there’s a lack of solid earth beneath your feet. Even those who live in Disney World just want to watch television sometimes.
And yet, even though I realize this, I find myself constantly admonishing my choices. It’s high school all over again: it’s Friday night, and even though every ounce of me wants to stay in, would be completely content in doing so, there’s a part of me that thinks the party I haven’t been invited to might let me in if I ask nicely. And even though I’ve come to recognize that New York is bodega counter arguments, and crowded subway cars, and walking into traffic even when a car is charging ahead, I’ll always suspect that it’s rooftop raves, and black box productions, and back-alley shows. And this, I think, is the curse of the New York émigré. As E.B. White observed, the city is ours, but so is the intangibility of its presumed promise.
We eventually did attend the Garret—Ri had a friend in town, and we wanted to give her the same surprise I’d received, minus the self-consciousness. Ri reserved a table for 9:30PM on a Saturday. Their website warned that, if we failed to show, there’d be a twenty-five-dollar fee per person. I’ve had therapists that cost less to cancel.
We arrived early; the bouncer told us to come back. We went to a nearby stoop, where Ri realized she’d never received the confirmation email. We had no proof of our booking. I walked back, somehow talked my way past the bouncer, and gave our name to the hostess. “We have no record of that,” she replied, tapping at her phone. “Do you have anything for three?” I asked. She glanced at me, then around. Something had shifted since our last tête-à-tête: I’d perfected the art of barging my way into a place—some combination of entitlement and impatience. “I can seat you until 10PM,” she offered. “That’s all we’ll need,” I said.
Ri and her friend arrived shortly, the bouncer suspicious of their motives. The hostess and Ri engaged in what appeared to be a slightly combative dialogue, even after the woman admitted that the online system was known to glitch. When they finally entered, it was obvious that no one was much in the mood to drink. But we’d made it this far and elected to keep going. I purchased something called The Beatles at Shea, named for an alleged party the Fab Four hosted in this tiny room after a concert—another myth I’m wary of. It reminded me of the cocktails we’d made in college—cloudy, sweet, cubed ice—which suggests that either we were quite prodigious at eighteen, or this wasn’t worth seventeen dollars. I probed Ri’s friend as to what she’d thought when we’d pulled her into a Five Guys. “I thought we were going to the bathroom,” she replied.
I looked around, trying to situate myself internally amongst these lavish customers who’d fluttered past me so many times downstairs. I wondered if they saw me as one of their own, or if they sensed that I was an imposter—or if they felt like imposters too, like we were all pretending we belonged when none of us really believed we did. And when I reflect on this now, I imagine I could return to the Garret, with certain friends—out-of-towners or otherwise—perhaps to convey who I wish I was, or perhaps because it really is a cool bar. But, when I consider it further, I find that what I really crave is my orange-dusted companion’s company, one floor below, surrounded by sticky tables and fluorescent light. If only I could learn how to appreciate it in the moment, instead of gazing up and wondering what the hell I’m missing.