Verlaine is New York City's version of the holy grail for lounges. Happy Hour from 5:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m., very strong drinks, beautifully dimmed lighting, and amazing food. Not satisfied with just being “the lychee martini spot” of the entire city, Verlaine is the best place to bring any first date. With the drinks flowing, candlelit tables, and with all food $13 and under, you can rev up the romance without breaking the bank on that possible Tinder date from hell. Having brought more than a few dates to Verlaine ourselves, we have always wanted to know more about our favorite lounge. We sat down with co-owner Gary on a Sunday night to get the answers to some of our burning questions we've had for years, including just how much vodka is actually in those lychee martinis? You'll love the answer along with the rich history behind the Lower East Side's favorite lounge.
Labeling Men: How did Verlaine get started?
Gary: Me and my two friends wanted to open a very laid back, not too pretentious, chill type of establishment and we chose the Lower East Side because there was almost nothing here at the time and we knew it was going to be the next kind of hot area in New York.
Labeling Men: How did the concept start with naming the bar "Verlaine.”
Gary: We were actually going to name the bar "Vespertine," which means "Of the evening.” It’s kind of a vampire word and the week we were going to open, Bjork came out with her album "Vespertine," so we were kind of in a rush, like emergency way to find another name, and had already trademark searched every "V" name in the country for a bar name because we didn't want to be sued. We started going through the books, seeing what else was available that started with "V" and my partner recognized Verlaine [Paul Verlaine] as drunk, derelict poet, crazy, bisexual and we were like, "Alright, that sounds good!"
Labeling Men: [laughs] That's so funny!
Gary: Maybe 2% of our clientele knows what Verlaine means.
Labeling Men: Not going to lie, I've been coming here for years and I had no idea. So your signature is the Lychee Martini, everyone knows it, how did you come up with that?
Gary: I knew that we were going to have Southeast Asian drinks here because I like the ingredients that go into Southeastern Asian food and drink: mint, mango, passion fruit, lemongrass, ginger, lychees. When we opened, we opened right after September 11, and the area was completely dead, nobody wanted to go downtown. We were the first. People said we were "too posh" for the neighborhood because we didn't look like a dive bar and that was all that was here at the time. We kind of decided even though we look nice, we have to serve an amazing Happy Hour and we're not going to serve dive bar drinks like a Happy Hour, so me and my bartender invented the Lychee Martini and said, "Okay, let’s put this on Happy Hour until 10:00 every day with sangria and other drinks and we'll see what happens.” Within two months, three months, it kind of just took off, that drink just took off. It was never planned, I had no idea this drink was going to be the basis of my whole life. It’s like that drink holds up the whole place for 14 years.
Labeling Men: Definitely. For me and my friends it’s “the lychee martini spot.”
Gary: We sell about 2,500 to 3,000 every week.
Labeling Men: Oh wow! I was going to ask you about the number on your website [how many Lychee Martinis served total is listed on their website].
Gary: Actually, that has to be updated, we just re-did the website last fall. [Editors Note: The number has been taken down for updating after this interview] So that number can go up a bit.
Labeling Men: What was it, like over a million?
Gary: Yeah, around 1.3 or 1.4 million.
Labeling Men: That's crazy.
Gary: Yeah I know, right?
Labeling Men: Oh yeah, you can drink those really quickly.
Gary: They have a lot of alcohol. They have over two ounces of alcohol in them, which is more than your basic drink, so I always encourage people to drink one and then drink some water because nobody really thinks they have a lot of alcohol in them.
Labeling Men: You mentioned when you first opened, the neighborhood wasn't very posh. Now some of it has caught up; what type of person comes here?
Gary: Everyone comes here, which is why we love owning this place. My partner, I own this place with a guy named Cliff. Every level of income comes here, every color comes here, black, white, Asian, Indian, Pakistani, everyone, New York City! You come in here any night and it’s like "Wow, this is the gamut of New York," which is really hard to find anywhere in the city. Usually you have your pockets "White people go here, black people go here, Latin people go here,” but we have everyone. We have the corporate types, the starving artist types, we have the hippies, we have the hipsters.
Labeling Men: What was the inspiration behind Southeast Asian, did you think of that when you started?
Gary: I just knew I wanted to design a drink menu around those ingredients and it kind of just happened.
Labeling Men: What is your personal favorite "Small Plate" and “Tapas"?
Gary: The grilled salmon with the chili lemon dipping sauce is outstanding, and the ginger-chili shrimp for the tapas.
Labeling Men: You're the only place I know that does 5:00 to 10:00 Happy Hour. Why do you guys still stick with it?
Gary: It was working, so why stop it? It took about two or three years to develop that local crowd. The first year, we were only busy on Thursday, Friday, and Saturdays and we figured that there started to be a lot of competition in the neighborhood at the time so we said, "Let’s just keep it, it’s working.” People love it! Some people get out of work at 6, 7, 8 o'clock Monday through Friday. Happy Hour until 7 to me sounds cheap...sounds terrible! In New York, who works 9 to 5? No one!
Labeling Men: What inspired the design of Verlaine?
Gary: Honestly, at the time we had no plan. We found the space, when you walk by the street at the time this [pointing to the window] was a big wall with a tiny window so you'd have no idea what was inside, that the ceilings we so high. When we walked in, we were blown away by the ceiling height and we just started building the long row over here [the lounge and chairs] and we just kept on going, “Oh, we'll put the kitchen here, the bar here, we'll make this spot the lounge,” totally organic.
Labeling Men: What was the inspiration behind the art pieces on the wall?
Gary: We have tons of wall space so we decided we were going to devote them to art and local artists and for years, we rotated the art once every two months and we would get a featured artist a show and an open bar for them to have. My business partner Cliff collects photography and he has an amazing and very valuable photography collection, so he started putting up his own stuff that he collects. I'm a photographer and I recently went to West Africa for a friend’s birthday. While I was there I did a whole shoot and I told Cliff, "Okay, let’s take all of your stuff down and put up mine.” So I enlarged all of my photos and these are all mine.
Labeling Men: Oh, really, they look great and so colorful.
Gary: This one above the bar was taken an hour outside the city of Freetown. We were driving and I looked up and I see this girl wearing a "Lower East Side" t-shirt so I had to stop and take a picture.
Labeling Men: Have you seen any terrible or funny dates?
Gary: Nothing crazy, I have seen a couple of stand-ups from those Tinder dates, that's kind of sad...But we always cheer them up.
Labeling Men: What are your future plans for Verlaine?
Gary: In October, it will be 14 years.
Labeling Men: Congrats!
Gary: Thank you! We just plan on keeping it going. I'd like to redo these floors, we've had the same floors but thankfully nobody cares about that, but I care about them. And we're looking in Bed-Sty, Crown Heights, and Harlem to open up another location.
Visit Verlaine in the Lower East Side at 110 Rivington Street and remember, it's 5-10 p.m. Happy Hour SEVEN days a week!