I should have worn my sexy black stilettos. The bouncers were looking us up and down as we waited outside the bar on East Houston Street. And then with a slight wave of the hand and a check of IDs (they always check IDs here), we were walking down the gangway, about to take off into one of New York's cooler theme bars -- Idlewild. True to theme, the entranceway looks and feels as though you're about to board an airplane, complete with ugly brown rubber vinyl flooring and clapboard panelling.
But this interior is far snazzier than your average airplane. The long, narrow bar takes the shape of an airplane, but is cast in a glossy metallic sheen that seems more private jet than economy class. Clubbers can recline in bona fide airplane seats (with legroom!). Pseudo-pilots serve cocktails behind the bar. The moniker Idlewild was the former name of John F. Kennedy Airport, before it was changed to honour the former president in 1964. The final touch is the toilets -- small, brightly-lit and uncomfortable, just like on a real plane. We could have done without this attention to detail.
But it is the finer points like this that make Manhattan's theme bars a step above the rest. Where else could you get your nails done while sipping a martini? Or drink beer served by monks while admiring a wall mural reminiscent of Michelangelo? Or enjoy a fruity cocktail while talking to a chatty bust of Edgar Allen Poe? It's all possible in New York's theme bars.
Here is a run-down of some of the more interesting ones worth a visit, if only to gawk at the décor (and the clientele).
Boxcar Lounge Like Idlewild, the Boxcar Lounge takes on the transportation theme. You think people spend enough time drinking on planes and trains not to want to simulate the experience on the ground. However, Boxcar is a cute neighbourhood bar that's under two metres wide and about nine metres long, about the shape of your average boxcar. One wall is corrugated iron, the other red brick. It's such a tiny joint, it's easy to walk right by its East Village location, mistaking it for a hole in the wall.
Jekyll & Hyde Club Jekyll & Hyde, on the other hand, is impossible to miss. Its garish display of kitsch lights up an otherwise unremarkable stretch of Sixth Avenue, not far from Central Park.
This is your kind of place -- if you've ever had fantasies about being trapped in a room where the roof starts lowering down on you and there's no way out, and then of course, sharp spinning spikes emerge from the roof, putting your life in even greater peril.
They subject every single one of their patrons to this entry test. We were deemed worthy to enter the bar, and thus spared being impaled by one of the spinning spikes. Or maybe, as the doorman put it, they're simply "dying" for some "new blood" inside.
The ghoul routine is more campy than creepy, if you don't mind drinking amid skeletons. The outlandish décor outside draws a steady stream of tourists, but this is not a place where locals come to hang out.
We went up to the library a.k.a. the bar, as opposed to the restaurant. Insect charts and old pictures line the stairwell. The library was atmospheric, even romantic, lined ceiling-to-floor with books in traditional English style.
Here every one of your wildest Scooby-Doo fantasies can come true. The crocodile head on the wall suddenly roars, the eyes in pictures on the wall ogle you, and the bust of revered poet Edgar Allen Poe talks.
Approached by a young boy, Poe makes up a poem too lame to repeat here. One of the waiters says, "Taylor here wants to know when the spooky stuff is going to happen."
The answer is never, unless you're about four years old. But one little girl had the jitters, "I'm not going upstairs, it's too scary."
It is kind of scary, when you think about it. Just imagine a red-eyed werewolf head barking out the Bon Jovi chorus "Your love is like bad medicine." Frightening, in every way.
Jekyll & Hyde also has a second, less campy location in Greenwich Village.
Beauty Bar In the East Village, you'll find the Beauty Bar, unless you mistake it for a true beauty salon and walk right by. This is a neighbourhood bar; unlike Jekyll & Hyde tourists would be hard-pressed to even find this place.
Inside, all of the fixtures of a fifties-era salon remain, as patrons imbibe their drinks around conehead hairdryers (Be careful you don't bump your head, like I did). This is a relaxing, low-key place to hang out and observe the New York scene with all its hipsters and trendoids. They even have an on-site manicurist so you can get your nails done on Thursday and Friday nights.
Barmacy Farther down the street, you'll find the Beauty Bar's sibling, Barmacy, created by the same visionary owner, which as you might have guessed, is a former pharmacy turned over to the night crowd. Despite the under-whelming pharmacy theme, this bar is popular enough to be packed when we arrived at 7 p.m.
Burp Castle This is another remarkable theme bar found in the East Village.
Here, in the great Trappist tradition, your beer will be served by habit-clad monks, though thankfully they aren't barefoot. This elegant pub has a brilliant mural on the wall, far more artistic than the name Burp Castle suggests.
Their encyclopedic beer list doesn't make for light reading, though not all the beers are in stock. We keep going down the list until we find one that they have. This pub is dedicated to the "worship of beer" and signs warn patrons to keep their voices down, probably so customers can give their beer the reverence it deserves.
Idlewild, 145 East Houston St., between Eldridge and Forsythe streets, (212) 477-5005. Boxcar Lounge, 168 Avenue B, between 10th and 11th streets, (212) 473-2830. Jekyll & Hyde Club, 1409 6th Avenue, between 57th and 58th streets, (212) 541-9505. Greenwich Village location: 91 Seventh Avenue South, between Barrow and West 4th streets, (212) 989-7701. This bar/restaurant also has locations in Chicago and Dallas. Beauty Bar, 231 E. 14th St., between 2nd and 3rd Avenues, (212) 539-1389. Barmacy, 538 E. 14th Street, between Avenues A and B, (212) 228-2240. Burp Castle, 41 E. Seventh Street, between 2nd and 3rd avenues, (212) 982-4576.