Wood-lined is an understatement, more like wood-soaked or wood-infused.
The plight of the New York City dive bar is real, pandemics and gentrification claiming more than a few, but the Lower East Side remains a viable dive drinking hub, very much including 6th Street’s cash only Cherry Tavern. Though the paint job outside has been refreshed over the years, the sign’s signature look has endured, a font that looks like it was stolen from a cotton candy stand at a circus.
Opened in 1975, this is a New York dive bar that very much looks like it was opened those many years ago, the interior space remarkably preserved (or at least very strategically and unobtrusively updated). Outside, circus sign aside, the look is very simple and in that way stands out from the ultra-sleek options on either side, one the fancy cocktail spot Death & Company, the other a bitters tasting room, if that means something, named Amor Y Amargo.
Because the plot across the street is largely residential in a part of Tompkins Square Park-adjacent East Village packed with bar options, making a wrong turn almost feels like a requirement to land at Cherry Tavern’s doorstep. This sort of ‘in-between’ stretch of bar and restaurant offerings is the perfect spot for a dive bar and though the cherry-themed exterior paint job has been lost to time, the stark black & white paint that now adorns the building is probably a better fit to the no-frills attitude embodied by a place like Cherry Tavern.
In middle school, a common activity includes building a scene of some type within a shoebox tipped on its side, a diorama of sorts created to teach kids about something, I’m not sure what. Picture the diorama in your life, convert the theme to dive bar, throw an egg carton-shaped sponge on top and you’d have a pretty good facsimile for Cherry Tavern’s interior. Sound proof padding on the ceiling of the New York dive bar somehow tricks the eye into thinking the ceiling is much lower than it is, contributing to a very shoebox-like vibe if that shoebox were made out of wood paneling.
One of the real benefits of a pure dive bar like Cherry Tavern is the ability to so easily picture what it may have looked like on opening day decades ago. Building that mental image at Cherry Tavern requires little more than taking out a new wall fixture here or there, the rest looking seemingly unchanged, from the vertical wood slats the line the space to the what-looks-to-be-original wood-dominated area behind the bar. A chalkboard menu can be found here and there, and those menus do include things like Negroni cocktails and alcoholic seltzer, but make no mistake, Cherry Tavern is a domestic beer-fueled dive bar at its heart. And though Cherry Tavern lacks in day drinking availability (they open at 6 PM daily and stay closed on Sunday), the bar makes up for it with late night accessibility (a 4 AM closing time).
Maybe most interestingly of all, where some dive bars paper over every surface with stapled dollar bills and fading newspapers, the look inside Cherry Tavern is wood-lined minimalist. The bar, the liquor counter, the walls, the floor, all of it is stark in its simplicity, again reinforcing the no-nonsense dive bar feel of the space. A handful of tables run along one wall, but this is a shotgun-style dive, only a few drinkers wide, the kind of place that heats up quickly with a crowd. Notable behind the bar is the presence of a pair of light fixtures that look like they could pass for predating the light bulb, porcelain white extensions with no shades above the register.
Framed prints of a red pattern dot the walls, creating a little bit of visual differentiation to the space. The wall just inside the front door to the left painted white with red stamped designs that give off a faux wallpaper look. These visual cues are repeated a handful of times in the space, adding just a splash of modernity to the space, but they provide a red-stamped drop in the visual bucket compared to the relentless wood found throughout Cherry Tavern. Even the pool table, hidden in back, and its purple felt pale in comparison to the well-aged brown color that surrounds it.
Cherry Tavern is a New York dive bar hidden amid a sea of upscale options that has taken great pains to retain its authenticity despite an update or faux wallpaper accent here or there. Cash only, covered in wood paneling and about as visually intense as a piece of balsa wood, Cherry Tavern is a 1975 throwback that persists in its beautiful, divey simplicity as the city continually evolves just outside.