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Johnny Englishman can’t act cool

Three staff members at Manhattan's Lucky Strike bar/bistro
I landed in New York a few hours earlier than my travel buddy. So, after finding my way to the Lower-East Side’s Sohotel, I decided to drop my bags and start exploring the neighbourhood… 

The hotel staff pointed me north, toward SoHo, where Manhattan’s boutiques and flagship stores vie for the affection of passers-by. Even in the first bright blue moments of my long weekend here, being alone in the bustle quickly reminds me how little I enjoy shopping sometimes. 

I chose to snub the stores and swap the street for a barstool. I open Google Maps to see which of my “saved places” were nearby and appropriate for a drink (it was happy hour, after all). I quickly discovered that I was close to a place I’d heard about called Lucky Strike

Two blocks and a left turn later, I’m sat enjoying a cold beer amongst a different kind of bustle. But let’s rewind a bit, to the moments before finding my seat, in which I cautiously survey Lucky Strike’s hospitality.

The entrance and sign to a bar called Lucky Strike in SoHo, Manhattan

“New York has finished work for the weekend and quaffs away the afternoon in bars like this.”

Step one; overthinking. Case the place from the street to mitigate any risk of looking awkward. Understand how much space there is, determine how many pairs of eyes will see me as I walk in, and check to see if the staff look friendly enough.

I can’t simply pop in and leave if it’s too busy. Nor can I stand peering into the window. I’m not a lunatic. I must lap the facade, using peripheral vision and clairvoyance to learn what I need to. Like ordinary people do.

Lucky Strike’s windows are set high, the interior is dimly lit, and jolly-looking customers fill every visible nook and cranny. New York has finished work for the weekend and quaffs away the afternoon in bars like this. I can’t confirm anything I want to know, so it’s time for step two; catastrophizing.

It goes something like this: I imagine opening the front door, immediately causing the ambient chatter to stop. Customers turn away from their companions and observe this foreigner’s inelegant entrance through the slim, aggressively-sprung double doors. The pairs of eyes are numerous and scrutinising. The bartender’s steely gaze flickers, exposing his scalding pity as I ask, “Is this seat taken?”, for some reason, in a whisper.

The interior of a bistro called Lucky Strike in SoHo, Manhattan. People can be seen sitting at a bar, via a mirror with a food menu.

“He doesn’t speak, so I assume we’re going to do this telepathically.”

I’ll repeat the question a second time, using sounds that exit my throat in the wrong order to form a proper sentence. This forces me to ask again, but this time with added gestures. Now the server looks at my left hand as I tap on a clearly vacant barstool. Eventually, we get on the same page, and I can actually sit down, hot from the embarrassment of making such a simple act appear so tricky.

Back in the real world, I coach myself into unsticking my Reeboks from the sidewalk and tiptoe into Lucky Strike. I pull open one of the narrow doors and ease inside. I’m in luck, immediately eyeballing three empty stools at the far end of the small bar. A seat for me, one for my luxury problems, and some breathing space.

The bartender, covered in sleeve tattoos and wearing a wiry black moustache, sends some cocktails away with his waiter. A minute later, he deals me a napkin and then pours some water before looking up to take my order. He doesn’t speak, so I assume we’re going to do this telepathically. When that doesn’t work, I try using my voice to order a bottle of Goose Island. 

Details of Lucky Strike's eclectic decoration

“’99 Luftballons’ plays, and a waiter collecting more drinks from the bar sings the riff.”

I say “try” because the process is remarkably similar to my imaginary seating disaster. I’ve been awake for 16 hours by this point, and my post-flight vocal cords have let me down. But I get my drink after some attempts incorporating my favourite hand gestures. I take a sip, and with my back to the world, I scan the room through mirrors behind the rows of liquor.

Dark wood panelling clads the lower half of the venue, which is slender and snakes a little on its way to the windowless rear. Banged-up barstools and bistro chairs add warmth and character. The upper walls and ceiling are an off-white that should come from tobacco smoke but are now just painted to evoke that kind of nicotine glamour.

Lucky Strike has a thrum registering somewhere between calm and energetic. Its customers are relaxed and happy and talk over an 80s soft rock soundtrack, the sort that screams lazy DJ at a wedding but is excellent in a place like this. The bartender shakes cocktails as he dances about the four-square-meter bar to “Livin’ On a Prayer.” Then ’99 Luftballons’ plays, and a waiter collecting more drinks from the bar sings the riff. 

Minutes pass. I’m sitting too stiffly, so I crick my neck and pull back my arms to stretch out my spine, then take out my phone to start outlining this post. Tens of minutes pass, my first beer is finished, and I’m finally sinking back into my own skin.

There’s a new barman. He smiles and says, “Another?”. “Sure,” I say, finding my voice this time and finally feeling at home.

Lucky Strike, 59 Grand Street, New York

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