Weekend Column: The Comeback For One Bar & Grill Will Take Creativity and All Hands on Deck

Hi-Life circa 2012.

By Earl Geer

When I opened Hi-Life Bar & Grill, on the corner of Amsterdam and 83rd Street, in 1991, the Upper West Side was just beginning its retail and restaurant renaissance. Hi-Life was across the street from the venerable Raccoon Lodge and up the block from the trendy Amsterdam Rotisserie and Grill — both long gone now. My primary inspiration for Hi-Life was the genre of restaurants I hoped to both celebrate and give my own personal spin: restaurants and lounges that flourished in the 1930s and 40s, whose art deco designs featured channel letters, stainless steel and neon signs, dark mahogany bars, upholstered booth and banquet seating, the “perfect” martini, and a great meal at a smart price. I fell in love with been-there-forever joints like McCale’s Bar & Grill in Midtown and the art-deco gem Lenox Lounge, built in 1937 and a regular venue for Billie Holiday and other jazz and blues luminaries. When New York Magazine featured the 1991 opening of Hi-Life Bar & Grill with the headline “Downtown Goes Uptown” — the new kid on the block was off to a fast start. Now, almost 30 years later, my joint feels like it has been there forever.

We have always done a brisk delivery business, but to stay open at this time I credit an incredible effort by my chef of 28 years, Nazario Pinzon, as well as a loyal kitchen team and cleaning crew, and close family members. My sister-in-law Elsa is the general manager, my wife Sara, who did bookkeeping before the crisis, is now doing double-time, and even our 16-year-old daughter, Lucy, a Trinity School sophomore, has jumped in on weekends to help out, answering phones and entering orders from the relative safety of the restaurant’s basement office.

My mind-set to stay open and never stop serving my customers is nothing new. Hi-Life has never closed, including on occasions when someone a little less crazy would certainly have taken the night off: 9/11, the blackout of 2003, Hurricane Sandy, half a dozen crippling blizzards, not to mention the last financial crisis, skyrocketing rent costs, staff turnover, scaffolding, competition from other restaurants, and fending off any and all the daily pressures that come with the territory for every small business owner. But the Covid-19 pandemic is different from all the other disasters and crises we’ve faced in the past, and I do fear for my business’s future and what a new normal may look like for my daughter and all of us going forward.

From L to R: Lucy Geer, Saard “Artie” Sitthipanya (Chef), Sara Geer, Earl Geer, Elsa Prior (GM), Nazario “Paco” Pinzon (Exec. Chef). Photograph by Alicia Randazzo (head server and bartender).

My Dream has always included an entrepreneurial creation that is working. The Dream has never been about popping expensive champagne corks or Puff Daddy-esque extravagance, and the Dream doesn’t prescribe a certain size house, include salary requirements or stock options. My dream is and has always been to achieve entrepreneurial success.

These days, many small business owners have no choice but to put their entrepreneurial dreams on hold; they are in the fight of their lives. How that fight ends will have a huge impact on our city and the nation’s recovery. Our entrepreneurial dreams can’t die or, I would argue, the economic life and vitality of our cities and small towns, as we know them, will die, too.

If I had a nickel for all the times I’ve heard pundits, politicians and prognosticators (the original PPPs) say that small business is the backbone of our economy, the engine of a growing economy and the like, I wouldn’t be a small business entrepreneur anymore. And if these statements are true, and I believe they are, then one of the big questions of the day has to be: Can small business entrepreneurs (independent restaurants, retailers, the mom and pops) survive this crisis and make a comeback?

I am an Everyperson Entrepreneur who knows firsthand that small business owners too often endure losses equaling their hard-won gains. After all these years in the entrepreneurial front lines, despite growing up with and buying into the macho Vince Lombardi credo that “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing,” I was forced to redefine winning a long time ago, and question if anything is the “only thing.” If I can see a little votive table candle at the end of this nightmarishly dark Covid-19 tunnel, it is because I know that the Everyperson Entrepreneur’s collective, never-ending battle for small-business success may actually be the key to our survival and comeback from the covid-19 crisis.

Many small business warriors that are still standing have found ways to be resilient during their toughest times and learned hard lessons about accepting disappointment as a part of life. Even when things were good, for most of us, there was always struggle. My hope now is that the lessons learned and survival skills acquired by all Everyperson Entrepreneurs can be called upon to help us navigate these very rough waters. Just as Covid-19 has evolved to be highly lethal and disruptive, each small business warrior has also evolved in their own personal brew of chaos, toughness, charisma, uncertainty, chutzpah, screw-ups, miscalculations, improbable wins, and lucky guesses to be collectively qualified to emerge as the necessary heroes of an economic comeback. As Aretha Franklin sang, many of us may “pay too much for what we got” in our comeback bids, but entrepreneurs know their story is not only about the end result and whether the time and money required to save their businesses will be “worth it,” but that they fought till the end to keep their dreams alive.

These days, even as I brace myself for whatever the future holds, I can still look outside and see my neon orange-and-white Hi-Life sign reflected on the dark windows of a passing bus — vivid proof of my entrepreneurial existence — and believe in the possibility of a comeback.

This essay was adapted from a longer article by Earl Geer. 

FOOD, NEWS, OPEN/CLOSED | 48 comments | permalink
    1. Karen says:

      This place has always been great. Earl the owner and his family and staff are amazing. Please go here and support this amazing restaurant.

    2. chuck d says:

      fantastic place, great article. thanks.

    3. M Larson says:

      Earl. Well written. It shows a sturdy intellect , respect of hard work and community. Great spirit as well.

    4. Ann says:

      Just read your article and am rooting for you, your family and your crew! Our city has long needed a come back of small business, so just maybe this pandemic will remind us of how important they are to our neighborhoods’ health and vitality. Just placed my first ever delivery order with you! Thank you for hanging in there!

    5. C says:

      Beautiful piece. Everyone who lives nearby will hopefully keep supporting your indomitable spirit(s).

    6. Greg says:

      Thank you Earl. The Hi Life is an amazing place. Can’t wait to return.

    7. Evan Bando says:

      And the man can write! I’m not a denizen of any one bar but I have been to the Hi-Life more than a handful of times and without fail I enjoy myself there, the vibe, the staff and, yes, the “smart” prices. Bar and restaurant people know that that only happens when the owner or management makes sure it happens. It takes all of the things written about so eloquently in Earl Geer’s piece above. It would be a terrible loss to the UWS community to lose the HI-Life and so many other places people seem to like. Visit, Rejoice, Repeat.

    8. Scaffolding put a knife into many restaurants. The coronavirus has twisted it. Hope there is a future for neighborhood gems like this one to survive.

      Open up avenue lanes for safely spaced outside dining! We’d go if that happens.

    9. R&K says:

      My wife and I have eaten at Hi-Life many, many times over the years, usually sitting at the great bar. It’s an UWS treasure. After trips we would always go there for a great burger. It was our welcome-back meal. We are living in Tokyo now and may never return but hope Hi-Life lives on!!

    10. IAN BOTTRELL says:

      Great essay Earl. You guys are just wonderful and represent everything the Upper West Side community stands for. We, and I know many others, will do everything we can to try and support you through this. Ian, Leslie, Luke & Sean

    11. Rich says:

      We live in the same building as Earl and his family and can attest to how wonderful they are. They, and Hi-Life, deserve all the support we can give them.

    12. Sharon Shuttleworth says:

      Earl and Sara,
      Your spirit, warmth, dedication and hard work has made Hi-life an absolute gem. It is such a special place and you and your team have fought hard through many upheavals to continue to serve the upper west side. Hi-Life is a true neighborhood treasure. We are all rooting for you and know you will persevere.

    13. Emily Mclintock says:

      We love Hi-Life – beyond regulars. It was my last place I went before being sequestered that night. I miss my friends there both behind and in front of the bar (and kitchen!). The regulars will work as hard as we can to keep Hi-Life around. I would always go there when something happened: hurricane, blackout, cat in hospital, blizzard, laid off, job offers, brunch day after our wedding, parents in town…along with every other time we’d go. We will be back, Earl & the whole team!! We love you! Elizabeth &Emily

    14. Beth says:

      Looking forward to being back at HiLife again, the go-to neighborhood restaurant that we’ve always considered our personal version of “Cheers.” Until then, hang in there, Earl, Sara, Sasha and friends. Stay well.

    15. Anna says:

      We lived across the street for years and it was our favorite place. We probably ate here two or three times a week for years in our 20’s. My brother still talks about the nachos he would always order when he would visit, and I remember riding out Sandy in the dining room. Now, we live in Brooklyn so we don’t get to visit as often, but have brought our daughter with us for lunch after visits to the children’s museum and it’s like returning to an old friend. A true gem!

    16. Ira D. says:

      We’re with you, Earl. Cant wait to come back to our favorite home away from home.

    17. Earl,

      Well said, beautiful expressed and spot on! You have always been an independent go getter with solid intentions and what you created and built has stood the test of time because your and team always cared and tried for the best. The future is uncertain and the challenges will be formidable, but I’m betting you all survive well into the next renaissance. Keep on keeping on!

    18. Anne Reingold says:

      We love you guys!
      Stay safe and stay strong!

      Anne and John

    19. Earl Geer says:

      A big thank you to West Side Rag and Carol Tannenhauser for providing a platform for my article; and also, we really appreciate the comments and affirmations we are receiving online and in person – they each give us a little more wind in our sails.

    20. bruce heyman says:

      Earl is a good man and apparently, an excellent writer. We have been friends and neighbors since I opened my shop at 469 Amsterdam 15 years ago (Metropolitan Window Fashions.) We are in the same boat and share ideas frequently. When this is all over, I recommend renting his place for a private event like we did for our holiday party.
      The only thing cooler than the Hi-Life is having it all to yourself 🙂

    21. Anita Jay says:

      As Aretha also said, “but if you need me, well say, say you do!”. Well, you said you need us and we will be there for you. I’m stuck in Europe right now but when I get back home this summer, your place will be my first stop. Stay strong, stay open.

    22. Robin Lewis says:

      I so miss my weekly dinners with friends and family celebrations ,not to mention your wonderful martinis.
      I still kept coming even after moving out of the neighborhood.
      Are you delivering ? If so how far from Hi Life?
      I🙏🏻Someday to be sitting with friends and family looking out on West 83 and Amsterdam!!!

    23. Julie Opperman says:

      A classic NY restaurant! Enjoy ASAP!

    24. AC says:

      Hi-Life Bar and Grill has one of the best New Years Eve Parties in the City. Its a well kept secret. And Earl, being the envisionist, has a cap on the number of patrons so there is always social distancing at New Years Eve there! Well written Earl.

    25. oldtimeUWSer says:

      Not many such places left that have been in business longer, and under the original management. Summer of ’92 met a girl there, she took me to see the Cure at the Nassau Coliseum, good times.

    26. Teresa Lane says:

      There is no place like Hi Life; Earl and Sarah, Elsa and the rest of the crew are family ; great food, good drink and most of all a whole lot of heart . People from all walks of life arrive here which makes for great conversations …some of which have built great friendships . We will continue to support you and wish you all the success you deserve ! Pay it forward !

    27. M says:

      I was There at the beginning, and recently moved back to the neighborhood. Thanks for everything along the way, and best of luck moving forward. This neighborhood needs you.

    28. Scott Brad Marcus says:

      Love this article and will always love you guys…I miss you

    29. CIndy says:

      We always loved Hi Life & EarI, hard working and stand up Nice,kind guy.
      The UWS will not let you go.
      Good food, OUR neighborhood place.
      Great staff & bar conversations.
      We don’t want to lose Anymore of what defines
      Our UWS .

    30. Stacey Kelz says:

      We miss you on the Upper Eastside!! Time to return after the flood gates open, and it will NYC Strong!

    31. Evan C says:

      Brilliant – thank you for this piece. Keep fighting the good fight!

    32. Sarah says:

      Hi-Life is one my local favorites! I really hope you guys can make it through this crisis. I can’t wait to come back to the dark mahogany room and have a tasty craft beer. So happy that you are still delivering your delicious burger! Much love!

    33. Dinesh says:

      Nice piece, Earl. I’ll come by and bug you for the full piece soon. Be well.

    34. Elaine says:

      I loved you when you were on 1st Avenue! My niece waitressed there while she lived with me and went to Marymount College. I so hope you survive..I will visit you on the west side…love the deco nostalgia concept♡♡

    35. Rebecka Moreno says:

      Thanks Earl, for your thoughtful words. We love Hi-Life so much. Great food, huge menu, festive atmosphere, wonderful staff. It’s a half block from our apartment so it’s become our go-to neighborhood place for sure. There’s times we’ve eaten Hi-Life 5 times a week, between dining in and delivery. What I appreciate most about Hi-Life is that every single person treats our 2-year-old extremely well, from Earl & Sara and Elsa, to Alicia and the rest of the servers, to Mo and the other men who clear the tables and bring out the food. Staff at most restaurants ignore children, or at most give a quick hello or wave at the start of the meal. But the Hi-Life crew goes above and beyond and interacts with him a ton. I can’t imagine it’s easy to have small children in a restaurant but they do it with grace and it sure as heck makes life a lot easier for a few hours a week, for at least two neighborhood parents.

    36. Jeannie Friedman says:

      I love Hi-Life and love what you wrote. Your spirit is so strong and at the heart of what makes the UWS great and NYC alive. Thank you—

    37. Anne says:

      You go guys!!
      Great article. Great place.

    38. Jeannie Friedman says:

      I love Hi-Life and I love your article. Your spirit is what makes the UWS great and NYC alive. I can’t
      Wait to sit at my favorite table by the window for Happy Hour! Thank you for running a wonderful business, humane and welcoming!

    39. CityGirl57 says:

      i remember when Hi-Life opened and it seemed so chic and polished. Now it has aged and mellowed with time to become a reliable decent experience with even a dose of nostalgia …so yes, those neon lights are indeed a comfort with the familiar glow …we will surely come and pick up food and all the while root for you!

    40. STUART B BROWN says:

      we departed upperwest [81 bway/amst] just a year ago [04/30/2019] and hi-life is the only joint that we continually talk about missing and have not found a replacement for [in nearby nassau county] …
      bonne chance earl and all, we pray that you [and others too] persevere and somehow feel that you WILL be there when we are able to return safely for a visit

    41. Hi Earl,
      We love HiLife and have been coming for years. We’re
      looking forward to your reopening, and if anyone can make it, you can! You are family. ❤️

    42. Jay Horne says:

      Earl and Hilife great memories. Jeffrey Wright! Highlife the movie was written by Roger! Shawn Choy! Great music lots of late nights!!!

    43. Vivian F says:

      We wish you the best of luck! Your food is excellent in these trying times, and the delivery is always quick and right-on! We ate many times in the restaurant, but stopped coming regularly as I suffered from severe arthritis and found it hard to walk there from our home. Yet, we have been ordering in with delivery, and find that every dish is perfect. Stay in the game, we love your place!

    44. Patsy Zendel says:

      Danny and I are incredibly impressed by your essay and courage! But you are and always have been a winner and I have the utmost faith in another victory for you Sara, Lucy, and Ethel. Danny and I truly love you and look forward to our weekends with you. I actually feel guilt that I’m out here unable to order your rosemary chicken and creamed spinach. Everything is closed here and the PUB falls far short of the HI-LIFE! I’m glad I taught you to write – a small contribution to a wonderful guy❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

    45. Chris says:

      Earl, I think I just read your future, it seems to be in literature. Great article! Please remember to update all on the other side of the comeback. And big props to the HiLife crew. The food, service and vibe are always 5 stars and can’t wait for my next HiLife burger.

    46. Melissa says:

      I recently moved away after 30 years living on 83rd Street, and I miss your homey bar/restaurant as much as anything or anyone else in the neighborhood. Good luck living the Dream!

    47. Stanley Sterenberg says:

      Thanks for an intimate behind the scenes look of what it means to own and operate a business. It’s not about the money — it’s about creating something worthwhile that others can appreciate and enjoy. Let’s hope you and others like you make it through this dark time.

    48. VBowling says:

      Thank you for sharing this story. We are rooting for you! Your staff is always so kind to dog owners and have enjoyed brunch and reading outside with the dog under the table. You all serve the best frozen drinks! Can’t wait to return.