listening to LION LION

As told by zachary gelnaw-rubin 

Zachary Gelnaw-Rubin sat down with us this month to discuss his career and new bar, Lion Lion, which recently opened on East 110th Street off of First Avenue.  Zach is a veteran of some of the New York City bars best associated with the cocktail's revival as an American cultural icon over the past decade and a half, including Little Branch in the West Village, Attaboy on the Lower East Side, and Dutch Kills in Long Island City, Queens.

I've been working in the service industry since I was like fifteen years old, in various different capacities. For the early years, mostly as a barista doing coffee stuff. Started out in Chicago, where I went to junior high and high school. I'm from here originally, but I was there for a while before I came back. Over the years I took more of an interest in doing night work rather than day work.

In my second stint of college, I went to Little Branch. I was brought to Little Branch by a friend of mine. At the time I was very skeptical. I was working at a restaurant working as a barista but also as a daytime-brunch bartender. The idea of paying $12 for a drink was preposterous to me.

Little Branch is $16 a cocktail now. It was $12 then. We're talking about 2008. I never would have thought of paying that much for a drink, or drinking a cocktail -- I didn't even know really what a cocktail was. One of my coworkers convinced me to go over there, he was like, "I'll buy you a drink." I remember parting the curtains and stepping into the space for the first time and being mindblown. I watched them make my drink, tasted it, and had my mind blown again.

It was a Presbyterian, sort of a rye-ginger highball. I was taken aback. I started hanging out there all the time. I kind of fell in love. And I decided that this is what I wanted to do.

One of the bartenders was teaming up with the owner of Little Branch to open a spot, and I just dogged him until he gave me a job at Dutch Kills. I was on staff on night one, started out as the door man-slash-host. As the original staff kind of dissipated I was standing there when the dust settled, so I ended up behind the bar also and getting trained. I got a very thorough training, and I worked at Dutch Kills for like six years.

Six years is a long time to work anywhere. After a while it was time for me to move on. So I started working at Attaboy. I started picking up shifts there, and then they welcomed me onto the staff, which was a stroke of luck for me.

Milk and Honey was in that space. This might be sacrelige. Milk & Honey wasn't my favorite. I'm a little bit boisterous. It was a very quiet space. Talking to people you didn't know wasn't encouraged. But I went there basically on dates. It was like a date spot for me.

Attaboy is way closer to the mark about what I like in a bar. It's small, it's sexy, it's intimate. The service is super high level and the staff is great. Everything's on point, but it's a more casual environment. When you walk in, you can feel there's a social situation happening.

What I tired of in Dutch Kills and Little Branch – I also ended up working there eventually – was this sort of throwback vibe, that we're sort of making believe it's prohibition again. The quote-unquote speakeasy thing. I got over that pretty quickly. I fell into step with it when I first started working with them for like a year or two, but there came a point where I was gently reprimanded for not wearing my suspenders to work.

It wasn't so much an attitude that I minded as much as the costume party. At the end of the day after it all wore off, and it took a couple of years, but it was exposed as basically a gimmick. To me, it was a helpful gimmick, because it restored a level of dignity to tending bar and to drinking.

So as a third-generation Petraske kid, I was there holding the bag of this legacy. No one really gives a fuck about this prohibition shit anymore, but people really care about the quality of their drinks. And they want cocktails. They want a thought-about and curated experience and environment, but they don't really want bow ties.

They want a more adult drinking experience that's affordable, and where you get a product that's of really high quality. Where it was worth it and you've got something memorable and enjoyable. So that's sort of where I entered the fray. 

As far as the Sasha family goes, maybe I can be considered something of a black sheep. I've sort of always had that attitude where I really loved what we were doing, but I was also like, can we just quit with this land of make believe shit, and just open up a contemporary bar that upholds these standards but doesn't have that vintage or throwback vibe to it.

We don't need that because we have identity. We can have our own identity. 2016/2017 has a culture and has an identity. Why don't we embrace it rather than searching for it in a bygone era? I don't really understand that mentality. Or at least, maybe it was my mission to find that mentality, to find that identity.

Leaving aside the business model, because business is business: my mission, which is like painted on top of the business, is to find – or to create -- a contemporary bar. I wanted to join the crowd of bar owners who are forward thinking, who are taking what we were given by this 2000s cocktail revival and bringing it to the future.

We had a couple of concepts that were just lying around. “Lion Lion” is a toungue-in-cheek astrological reference: myself and my business partner are both Leos. We used the Zodiac for the touchstone for design concepts and the overall philosophy of the bar. The sun being the ruling planet, though it's not a planet – it's also a fire sign. Individuals who are Leos are characterized as having strong leadership qualities, but they’re benevolent.

So it's a warm and welcoming environment that's masculine. It's dark. It's an intense environment. We want people to be relaxed but feel awake. The color scheme and the design elements were based on fire and the sun, so it's a lot of red, a lot of orange. It's kind of weird for me because it's actually not what I'm actually inclined towards. I gravitate to more feminine design and environments, so in the future I definitely want to pursue that vibe with something else.

We opened on November 1st, so we're coming up on fourth months, and it's starting to show us what it is. The staff is taking form. I'm learning what's working, what's not working. I'm learning what the neighborhood wants, and then making my choices about how much it wants I want to give it.

I love East Harlem. East Harlem has been so good to me. This is a wonderful, amazing community. It's a beautiful community. I feel blessed that I've been so welcomed. What I've drilled into my staff and my customers over and over again is that we are here for everyone. 

I'm entertaining myself with a little bit of kitsch. I'm offsetting the masculinity of the environment with this sort of cute nature of the menu. I've got a lot of diminutive things. I'm about to entertain myself even further with a bunch of large format shit, like magnums of wine. I want to serve someone a magnum of rosé and a miniaturized daiquiri.