By Carol Tannenhauser
Prohibition, the classic UWS bar and restaurant on Columbus Avenue between 84th and 85th Streets is reopening on Tuesday, December 21st, after being shuttered by the pandemic for 20 long months.
“The elephant in the room,” said owner Michael Trenk, “is do I think indoor dining is going to be shut down again because of Omicron? Will we make it to New Year’s Eve?”
Short of a government lockdown, Trenk said, Prohibition’s opening is going forward.
“It’s become a competition of you’re not going to beat us,” Trenk told the Rag, when we checked in to see if the Omicron surge had affected his plans. “When I say ‘you,’ I mean COVID cannot be the death of Prohibition, which has been an institutional lifeline of the community for 26 years. I can’t tell you how many people say, ‘I met my wife there, had my first date there, my first kiss, celebrated our first anniversary.'”
“Everybody on my staff is willing to take the risks,” Trenk said. “Everybody’s willing to work inside as long as people are vaccinated and masked. And they are — triple vaxed. The Upper West Side is as safe a clientele as there is in this country, in my opinion.”
But will the people come?
“The short answer is, yes,” Trenk said. “And by the way, I say this all the time. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. I don’t need to make all my money back for the last 20 months right away. I have a long-term lease. I want to start off slow. I’m only open Tuesday through Friday next week because of Christmas weekend.”
It will be a very different Prohibition that reopens from the one that closed on March 15, 2020, but a key element will remain the same: “Great live music,” said Trenk.
“Prohibition has always been one of the few places you could go to for live music on the Upper West Side, seven nights a week,” he explained. “Our bands don’t play their own original stuff. It’s more like four friends get a band together and play covers. Over the years, a few original artists have gotten started and played at Prohibition: Gavin DeGraw, Rachel Platten, Morning Joe [Scarborough]. But, generally, people come to hear, “Build Me Up Buttercup,” “Sweet Caroline,” and other songs they hear on the radio.”
“It was a tremendous amount of fun,” he recalled. “Everybody would sing along and dance. We don’t have a dance floor per se, but we have an area in front of the stage where people gather and move to the beat. It became a very…um…uh…festive environment” are the words he chose to describe it. Other people have called it “downright rowdy.”
That’s where the transformation of Prohibition comes in. Everyone assumes Prohibition was named for the era of outlawed alcohol manufacture, transport and sale from 1920 to 1933, but Trenk told us that wasn’t the case. The original owner simply thought it was a great name. Now, it’s going to live up to it.
The music is staying the same, but the theme is going 1920s. “The Roaring Twenties are back,” Trenk smiled. “Before it was more of a bar, first and foremost.” Now it’s morphing into a modern-day speakeasy. Not the back-room or basement type or one akin to the swanky 21 Club, which, indeed, was a speakeasy back in the day. Prohibition will settle comfortably in between. Trenk calls it a “supper or social club without the membership.” It is going from “rowdy to refined,” he said. It’s also going to open and close earlier, and cater more to families.
Like its owner and the Upper West Side itself, Prohibition is “maturing,” Trenk, 54, said. The bar is 26 years old; its frat boy days are behind it. In their place will be a staff wearing 1920s garb — “from Bonnie and Clyde to Gatsby” — with a secret “speakeasy door,” leading to a backroom “that is like a museum,” Trenk said. “There will be art on the walls, lots of barrels, and label-less liquor bottles used as lighting,” because bootleggers didn’t advertise. The cocktails will be “upscaled. We’re going to pride ourselves on the art of making a drink.” Co-owner Tristan Colton, who tended bar for 16 years, will be heading up the cocktail program.
In April of 2020, you couldn’t have convinced Trenk that Prohibition would ever reopen.
“The world was bleak,” he recalled. “People were dying in record numbers and the numbers were spiking every day. Staff members were sick and people were scared and New York was going through riots and looting and all the things we were facing, specifically, in this city. I couldn’t even think about reopening.”
Luckily, Trenk had a fall-back position. When he closed Prohibition, he opened Baylander Steel Beach, a seasonal restaurant on an aircraft carrier (of all places) docked at 125th Street, which WSR wrote about here. Trenk moved his whole team to the ship, saving their jobs and, ultimately, Prohibition. Baylander was a hit. It closed for the season in November and what’s left of the team has come back to reopen and staff Prohibition.
Trenk’s excitement about the changes at Prohibition is palpable. “If you didn’t look in the mirror during COVID, both personally and professionally, and see that things weren’t perfect before and make changes, then you missed the point of what COVID could have shown you. We took so many things for granted. I had this great concept, but I wasn’t executing it properly. It had lost its luster.”
That went against Trenk’s grain. He had been mentored for 19 years by Drew Nieporent, the world-renowned restaurateur behind Montrachet, Tribeca Grill, and Nobu, who he met through his parents, both avid foodies. Nieporent instilled in Trenk a respect for hospitality, service and flair, which is reaffirmed nightly by Trenk’s mother, “who is one of the smartest people I know and introduced me to fine restaurants,” he said. “She texts me every night around 1:30 a.m. to tell me how to treat people — and her.”
It is said that Speakeasies were so named because patrons often had to “speak easy,” i.e. whisper through a slot in the door the name of the person who had referred them. [Other derivations here.] You won’t need a name at Prohibition — though “Upper West Sider” might help.
“We’re really trying to cater to the Upper West Side community, which has supported us for 26 years through thick and thin, and allowed us to come back every time,” Trenk concluded. “The Upper West Side is one of the most vibrant neighborhoods in the city. [54 years old, he has lived here his entire adult life.] I’m creating Prohibition for the Upper West Side, what I think it wants and needs now. I’m not creating Prohibition for Brooklyn. I’m not creating Prohibition for the Lower East Side or for Chelsea. It’s for the Upper West Side.”
Click on the website for hours, menus, and music calendar. Flash! White Wedding is coming New Year’s Eve. “They always bring down the house,” Trenk said. “And look for Morning Joe to return next year, too.”