Jim Meehan isn't Danny Meyer. He isn't Milk & Honey owner Sasha Petraske. He insists he doesn't run a speakeasy and that he's not into gimmicks. PDT (short for "Please Don't Tell") has attracted locals and B&T kids alike for their mix of innovative cocktails served behind a "secret" phone booth in the middle of Crif Dogs in the East Village, which might as well just be a regular door at this point. And after four years their reservations are still always full, no small feat in a city with the attention span of a 4-year-old with ADD. Jim spoke with us about the secret to keeping a business alive in New York, how his "modern speakeasy" fought the inevitable speakeasy backlash, and why PDT may be the Zooropa of the cocktail scene.
So give us a little background. How did PDT start? We opened in May of 2007: at the time I was bartending four nights a week at Gramercy Tavern and one night at the Pegu Club. I started working at both places around 2005, so I was working 5 nights a week, right around 2005 when the cocktail "revolution" was really starting to expand—Employees Only and Flatiron Lounge were already open—it was growing. In 2007, one of my former regulars at the first bar I worked at in New York, Chris Antista came to visit me at Pegu. He said that he and a friend were working on a bar project in the East Village, and they were looking for someone to help them create a cocktail program. At this time, since there were so few cocktail bars in New York City, there were numerous consulting offers, and he was an old acquaintance, so I checked out the space. Brian Shebairo opened Crif Dogs with Chris 10 years ago. After 9/11, Brian stuck with it, Chris didn't. Long story short they brought me in to help design the bar, create cocktails, hire the staff and buy the booze.
Our space [PDT] used to be a Japanese bubble tea lounge run by another operator. It was failing, and Brian had a liquor license that he wasn't really using at Crif Dogs. They had a bottle of Jägermeister in the ice cream freezer, they tried a Daiquiri machine but it wasn't being utilized. In the last 5 or 6 years the East Village community board has become one of the most militant in the city regarding liquor licenses, and the restrictions they place on new bars and restaurants seeking them. Brian was thinking, "Hey I've got a liquor license and I don't use it and the space next door is going out of business" so he took over the lease, built the bar and brought me in as a consultant. Conceptually the bar behind the phone booth is Brian, managing the bar and cocktail program—and we collaborate on everything—is me.
But why have the entrance through the phone booth rather than out front? That's a great question. If we had a separate entrance on the street, we would have needed a new liquor license. By putting the door inside Crif Dogs, that's the dining room, this is the bar. Because it's the same address: 113 St Marks Place. PDT does business as Crif Dogs, but it's two different concepts within the same business and location.
You guys are definitely one of the first places to have the sort of speakeasy-ish mentality or sort of design. At the time Angel’s Share (around Stuyvesant Place) had been open for almost ten years. Milk & Honey opened in 2000, Freeman's, which really isn't the same thing, but it's not far from it, was a year or two ahead of us. And Employees Only was open a couple years before us, as well as Little Branch. They all have nondescript doors, which I definitely think of when I think of speakeasies. I would say we were like a tipping point: all these places existed, and we connected the dots. When PDT opened, everyone thought, "Holy shit, this is a trend." And I feel like we were one of the places that established it as a trend—but we didn’t pioneer it.
Do you think it's a good thing that it became a trend? Because there has been a backlash. When we first opened, everyone kept saying, "You're a speakeasy, you're a speakeasy, you're a speakeasy." I've done so many interviews about speakeasies.
Would you even call yourself a speakeasy? So the funny thing is, when we opened, everyone said, "This is a speakeasy." As a cocktail historian, I said, "We're absolutely not a speakeasy." Speakeasies were illegal bars that served bootlegged or adulterated hooch, they didn’t’ serve culinary cocktails. Identity is equal parts, or some balance of, what you think you are and what others think you are. After a million people called us a "speakeasy" I conceded, "Alright, we're a speakeasy, but we're a modern speakeasy."
So we have a hidden door but we serve great drinks. It was funny, a friend asked, "You're the one who coined the term 'modern speakeasy?' I hate that term." Yeah, it was me. About a year and a half, two years in, hoteliers started coming in, and they were looking at this as a potential concept for their hotels or casinos or whatever. Ultimately it's flattering, but it’s a lot tougher to execute than it looks. It’s nice that people are emulating certain characteristics: unfortunately, one of the characteristics that we've most been maligned for, that I wish more people would emulate, is our reservation policy. The idea that on Friday night, when every other bar is packed, that you could walk in here if you have a reservation, sit down at your table without a wait and get good service.
When we opened, people were showing up late left and right. The concept of having a bar reservation was so foreign to them, that they didn't even realize, "Oh, I should really turn up when I said I would." The no standing rule turned people off. They were like, "What do you mean I can't stand? What you do mean I can't have my 15 friends here?" Ironically, A lot of the policies I developed to ensure that we can serve our guests to the level we hold ourselves to, and hope our guests hold us to, still get held against us today.
And be able to hear your friends. Or not have a bunch of people standing over you. Exactly! Or that the host hasn't been bought and sold, and you're not getting in because you're not rich or famous or you're not giving me a hundred bucks. I just think that these are the sort of ideals that we had when Brian and I opened this place, and it's surprising how few people have emulated that part of our concept. They just say, "Hey, let's open a bar inside a comic book store." When I opened I was concerned about the drinks. After a few weeks I realized, the drinks are easy, the hardest part is maintaining decorum and a good atmosphere.
When I told my friend that I was doing this interview, she told me, "oh that place? I read about that in an in-flight magazine!" Clearly you're big now. How do you think you guys, this far into it, keep yourselves relevant? How do you let people know that you are worth more than a gimmick? One of the reasons why its been a gimmick to everyone else but it hasn't been a gimmick to me, is because when you meet Brian and pick up on his sense of humor and how he's decorated Crif Dogs, the phonebooth totally works in a Rob and Big way. He always comes up with creative, off-the-wall ideas where you're like, "Really? You're gonna do that?" and it works. And some people, they just can't pull that off. I can't pull that off. The phone booth was not why I started working here. I'm here 'cause of the drinks, and the service, and the people, and to remain relevant.
The prototypical modern speakeasy is Milk & Honey. They change their phone number every six months. [Owner Sasha Petraske] was extremely reclusive back in the day. Now, you see him at events and he may come say hello to you at his bar. But he doesn't want to be a spokesperson for New York cocktail bars and talk about what he's done for the industry. He's pioneered all of this. When we opened, I was accused—"You run this bar called "Please Don't Tell," and it's a speakeasy," and I guess they'd assumed all along that we were emulating Sasha and Milk & Honey, and they asked, "Why are you doing interviews? Why are you in in-flight magazines? Why are you on TV?" I've never tried to be Sasha. I'm not Sasha. I've always been a huge ham for a microphone or a journalist. I love talking about what we're doing. It helps me clarify what we do so I can articulate it to everyone from our customers to bartenders to the new person I have working for me to a journalist. When you don't have a storefront, you have to get the word out!
The goal from the beginning was to start small. Within the first 9 months we'd changed the entire menu seasonally, so one day there'd be 18 drinks, and the next day there'd be 18 new drinks. Changing everything we served brought people back. I didn't want to be the sort of bar where you have the house drink, and then you check it off your bucket list and never come back again.
Look at musicians. I love the Black Crowes, but every Black Crowes album sounds like the last Black Crowes album. There's a reason why you won't see the Black Crowes changing music history. When you look at bands like The Beatles, Radiohead, U2,—Zooropa doesn't sound anything like Joshua Tree. You may hate Zooropa, but the band has evolved and their goal is to challenge who they are each and every time they put something out. And I think that's what I've tried to do here, what we've started with, that 11 drink obscure menu is nothing like what we're doing now 'cause the identity of the bar, along with the people running it with me now, are completely different. We're always trying to evolve, whether it’s the ingredients we're working with, the techniques we're using, whatever it is, to try and remain relevant. I no longer change the entire menu, I now have a core group of five or six drinks that remain, because they embody our identity.
I also think it's my staff. I remember when I worked for Jimmy Bradley and Danny Abrams: they opened 4 restaurants in 5 years. And you can do it if you've built a foundation, but if you don't it causes an incredible amount of stress to you and your team. One of the things I learned working for Danny Meyer—he didn't open Gramercy Tavern till 7 or 8 years after Union Square Cafe. And then he grew like this. Once you've been a restaurateur for 25 years and you have a huge corporate office with unlimited amounts of money, you can grow like Danny does now. While I've seen a lot of my colleagues in the industry get distracted with consulting projects and second and third bars, PDT is my home base. I think that's helped me stay focused on the quality of this place. As I've pulled away from bartending and now manage, I spend so much time working with my staff, I think I hold them to a higher standard than many do. I've hired a great group of people that I'm super proud of. What I've learned in this business, especially at PDT, is that it's much harder to mix people than it is to mix drinks.
That's a good slogan. The more I’ve focused on mixing people and the less I’ve focused on mixing drinks, the more dynamic the bar has become.
So if you're constantly trying to evolve, that's the next step for PDT? For the last 9 months or so I've been writing a book, basically my dream bartenders manual, that has all of our recipes up until last spring in it. I'm going to be able to hand this book to my staff and say, "This is what you need to know." And it's gonna be in Barnes & Noble! Once I get that out of the way—this is how I want the Manhattan made, this is what the cycle of service is, this is what our mise en place consists of—I can focus more on the bartending and the guests. In the NY media, you have to open a new place to stay in print. New York Magazine hasn't mentioned me or PDT in two and a half years. It doesn't make sense to me.
That's New York, there are a million places opening each week. The beautiful thing about this place, there are over 6 million people in the metropolitan area, 5 and a half million have never been to PDT, 3 million have never heard of it. Plenty of people could potentially come here and think, "This is so cool." Since we've opened we've put in new lights, new tables, redone the floor three times, we're about to remodel our bar, we're constantly making our bar a better place to drink, a better place to work, a smarter business. It's not a New York mentality, the way we're trying to do things. It's not the most profitable either. But I think in the long term my goal has been not to run a popular place and then move on to open another popular place, its been to go from opening a popular place to becoming an institution. Gramercy Tavern is a great example. It's not the most "happening" environment, but it's always very good. From a staff stand point, many of the people I worked with 4 years ago are still there, because it's a great job and they’re proud of what they serve. My goal is to draw in that caliber of employee and eventually send them out into the world equipped to be successful in whatever they do, that's my goal.
So no plans for PDT Williamsburg? Well we just opened Crif Dogs Williamsburg. My partner is very very focused on Crif Dogs and the book has been all-encompassing for me this year. I think by next spring PDT will be five and I'll be looking for another bar project. I like this concept but if I were to do another one I'd do it another city.
I grew up right outside of Chicago and went to college in Madison, Wisconsin. I love it there, and my wife and I are thinking we want to have a baby next year. So for me, I've been in New York 9 years this year, 10 years next year, and I don't know—what I've learned and accomplished here are amazing. I'm a process-oriented person, and I think that running a place like this is perfect for me. This city is obsessed with people like Danny Meyer, David Chang, Keith McNally, and Gabriel Stulman, who open a new place every year. And that's not what I do At a certain point New York and I might break up.
It's exponentially more difficult each time you open another one and spread your team even more thin. It does show. The chefs and owners I just mentioned deserve all the credit in the world for spreading their wings and growing their platforms. Restaurant operation is a brutally 24-hour-a-day thing. If you can find someone to do it the way you wanna do it then great, then you can open another one, but I haven’t met a lot of people like me in this world. I have yet to clone myself effectively.
What do you think will happen here if you go? Will you leave it in good hands? (Laughs) Oh totally. All of this completely is speculative. A lot of this has to do with raising kids, it has a lot more to do with $15,000 a year for pre-K than, "oh New York doesn't like my bar." I live a great life doing what I do now, but to have kids or even a kid here at that cost, it's just expensive.