Back when I was in my … well, back when I was younger, my friends and I would occasionally go to a sports bar called Phebe’s, because we were young and it was cheap and in the East Village — and at the time, the East Village was where you hung out if you were young and broke and trying to seem cool. I don’t quite know where “young people” who are trying to seem cool hang out these days (Williamsburg?), because I am old and broke and live in old-people’s Brooklyn and just want the young people to get off my stoop. Or I would, if I had a stoop.
It’s not that Phebe’s was remotely cool or even pretended to be, but the fact that it was cheap counted double. Also, we felt like we were slumming it there, since our other preferred hangout was the far swankier Belmont Lounge (in retrospect, I have no idea what we were thinking). At some point, Phebe’s closed for a while owing to health code violations — we assumed because of rats, and I’m sorry, but when you don’t know any better that’s always what you assume — and then, in the way of young people who have the attention spans of goldfish, we forgot it existed. Later we heard it had reopened, but every time someone mentioned it, we’d joke, Phebe’s is still open? Wasn’t it shut down for health code violations? Which, come to think of it, isn’t that funny of a joke or even a joke for that matter, but as I might have mentioned, we were young, and therefore kind of stupid.
Time passed. [--> insert time passing] Somehow or other, I started going to Phebe’s again. I was working a night job, and most of the people I worked with were in their twenties and liked going there for parties. I doubt many of my new colleagues knew that Phebe’s had ever had a health code shutdown, and I didn’t mention it. None of us had any money. We weren’t going for the ambience. Once again, Phebe’s was good enough.
After I started working nearby, some of those former colleagues and I took to meeting at Phebe’s at happy hour for appetizers and beers. We were professionals now, with no excuse for hanging out in a frat-crowd bar like this, but there was something about going there that seemed almost ironic, and we liked it. We went there when we had something to celebrate, we went there when we needed to vent, we went there when we hadn’t seen each other for a while and felt like grabbing a beer. My friends treated me to a Phebe’s night shortly after I lost my job, and it was comforting and I was grateful.
We always sat at the same table, though this wasn’t the kind of place where the waitresses tend to remember you, or where we ever got the same waitress twice. Once, we got silly and started waving through the floor-to-ceiling windows at tourists in double-decker buses as they rode past. Those who noticed stared back at us with puzzled looks on their faces, believing we were either rude or insane — but we meant no harm. We even worked up a little “welcome to New York” waving routine for them, which involved a taking-a-picture gesture (don’t ask). We had so much fun that night, we laughed until we cried.
I would never go to Phebe’s on a weekend, when I assume it would be a crowded hell-hole; but on weeknights, there’s room enough to sit anywhere. There are happy hour specials, food, a decent beer selection. It’s a bar that’s too big to be intimate, too generic to be memorable, too aggressively mediocre to be anything but “good enough.” Yet somewhere along the line, I had grown fond of Phebe’s.
I’ve had the wings at Phebe’s plenty of times, but I felt I needed to give them my full attention, so I dropped by recently with my friends Lauren and Clare. We sat at our usual table, with the TV near us tuned to ESPN. Because I’m the sort of person who obsesses over typos, I have to share one that I happened to spot:
Note to ESPN: Need a copyeditor? I’m available! Call me!
We ordered a small plate of the wings as well as an item on the menu I’d never noticed before: bacon tempura. I’ve long wanted to try the bacon tempura at The Red Cat, made famous by Ted Allen on “The Best Food I Ever Ate.” I figured this might be the next best thing. I probably figured wrong. It was … you know, deep-fried bacon, which is never a bad thing, but it was so bland (the bacon itself was not crisp, so it was like eating some fried batter that happened to be friendly with some Canadian bacon) that eating it only made me want the Red Cat bacon tempura more. Again, not a bad thing. The chipotle mayo sauce was tasty, though, with a nice little kick. Although if the mayo was supposed to be the dish’s condiment (there are fries underneath), why serve it with ketchup, as well? Maybe that’s the Phebe’s way: be all things to all people.
Phebe’s does distinguish itself by carrying Abita Purple Haze, which I appreciate in a bar. I feel as though a bar that serves Abita must respect beer, though maybe I’m just being pretentious. (They also serve Magic Hat, which means they’re pretty much hitting my “favorite beer” sweet spot.)
As for the wings? Weeelll … Let’s just say that Phebe’s wings are what people think of when they think of bar food. You’re eating them to soak up the alcohol, and not because they’re actually any good — they’re dry, only somewhat crispy, and taste-wise, as Buffalo wings go, they’re nothing special. I wouldn’t be surprised if they had been sitting around for a while before making it to our table. It was a Monday, so it’s possible they would have tasted better after 8 p.m., when they would have been on special for 10¢ each. But overall, they’re kind of meh. (On Yelp, someone wrote — as a compliment — that the wings were “definitely worth the $.10!” Yup, that’s about the size of it.)
That doesn’t mean I haven’t eaten a ton of these things in the past, or that I won’t order them again in the future. It’s Phebe’s. Not my style and nothing to write home about, but I know what I’m getting, and I’m all right with it. Sometimes you don’t need to be blown out of the water; sometimes, you want something average, not too painful, in your comfort zone — something that’s just good enough. And after all, isn’t that kind of like life?
359 Bowery at East 4th Street
East Village, New York