You'll have to forgive the giant windows and that, what do you call it, sunlight.
There are dive bars and then there are bars that sit right on the edge of hipster gentrification and divey roots, understandably straddling a line of devotion to the past and a desire to take in some decent revenue in the present. In New York’s East Village, Sophie’s balances on that edge, on one side an exposed brick, trendy-looking bar with fresh artwork on the walls and on the other side, a neighborhood institution with a seriously impressive bar. Pinpointing a bar’s “type” is inevitably a futile effort, but the line being walked at Sophie’s provides decent insight into the vibe and atmosphere inside.
The celebrity and historical pedigree is strong at Sophie’s, a location visited by a running list of celebrities and used by Anthony Bourdain as backdrop for one of his televised trips through New York. Nearby Ukrainian Village provides Sophie’s with its namesake in the form of one-time Ukrainian owner Sophie Polny whose tenure was considerable but not the first attempt at running a bar at its current location. No exact opening date is known, but reports suggest that as early as 1914 someone was serving someone else alcohol at this address. Ownership switched hands a few times during the intervening years and going out of business was flirted with a time or two, but the neighborhood staple has apparently outlasted, in style, both Prohibition and at least one pandemic.
At street level, the windows are gigantic by dive bar standards, the trope of the dimly lit dive bar smashed here by nearly floor to ceiling glass. The look outside is more New York boutique than it is dusty old dive bar, one example of the line straddled by Sophie’s. A recessed glass door in the center of two bay-like windows is a unique look for a neighborhood bar and one that provides ample view of the assembled crowd inside. That preview of the space is a beneficial twist on the dive bar theme here, allowing you to assess whether the size of the crowd matches the intent of your drinking (solo or looking for a little chaos).
Once inside, the vibe is very much neighborhood haunt more than traditional dive bar, which is no slight. The walls feature a mixture of exposed brick and solid red paint, a handful of photos distributed throughout the space paired with art pieces to add a little class to the proceedings. The surfaces alternate between brick, paint and a little bit of wood paneling that runs halfway up one of the interior walls. In spots, the black-painted ceiling features a bit of prose stapled flat. Also affixed to the ceiling is a flat white sign with rope lighting around the edge inscribed with “We’re All Here Because We’re Not All There.”
The highlight at Sophie’s is the bar itself, a nicely faded wooden shrine to liquor that takes up a fairly small footprint toward the front of the space. The counter, the swinging doors providing access to behind the bar, the shelving for the liquor bottles, all of it looks to be held together with old nails and ancient wood in the best possible way. The structure holding everything up takes the shape of a shingled roof, spires on either side of it with glass cabinets holding additional drinking-adjacent knick knacks and materials. Yellow lighting splashing on the liquor bottles paired with polished brass tap handles makes for a very mellow, very classic appeal to the counter area.
Beyond the bar, the space is pretty minimalist, a handful of short tables mixed in with a sticker-laden, green felt pool table in the rear of the space. A large illuminated sign reading “Sick Room” adds some intrigue to the design, one of the older-looking pieces in contrast to some of the more modern art pieces that surround it. A CD-based jukebox has taken up residence at the rear of Sophie’s, the collection ranging from classic rock to Big Band standards. Above the jukebox, a handmade Clydesdale-like spin on the horses-pulling-beer-kegs theme.
Dive bar or not, Sophie’s does a great job of creating a minimalist, drink-as-you-are neighborhood vibe in a city that always benefits from a hideout or two. The divey touches are there, from the stickers covering the pool table to a beautifully weathered bar, to elevate what would otherwise be a pretty standard stopover into a snug neighborhood destination.