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Monday, July 13, 2009

DRINK, DANCE, BUT DON’T SAY ‘CLUB’

SUPERDIVE is pretty much nothing. And nothing is as hot as anything these days. Superdive, which opened in late June, is a much blogged-about bar on Avenue A in the East Village that has deconstructed nearly every imaginable pillar of the over-the-top New York night life scene.

The bathrooms have plywood stalls, a scrawny doorman checks IDs but little else, and instead of bottle service, Superdive offers keg service — tableside.

“Since everything else is so chi-chi,” the manager, Keith Okada, said while pushing a plastic cup of beer toward a young woman at the bar last Monday night, “we thought, ‘Why not offer keg service?’ ”

At a table, a group of men in their 20s and 30s shared a 5-liter keg of EKU Pils beer to celebrate what they call “Manday,” a semiregular male-bonding night out.

Superdive suited them more than a noisy club with menacing velvet ropes and $400 bottles of vodka, said David Sitt, 32, a Manday regular and psychology professor at Baruch College.

“When you watch the Flintstones and they are at the Water Buffalo Lodge,” he said, referring to the homey clubhouse where Fred Flintstone, Barney Rubble and pals partied, “they don’t have bottle service there.”

“We’re in a period where a snotty attitude is not helping people feel better about themselves,” he added.

Super fancy is out. Revenues are down 20 to 40 percent in the last year at those throbbing Manhattan nightclubs that flourished by catering to Wall Street guys who casually swiped their credit cards for four figures, club owners said. Many once-hopping clubs, like Lotus, Mansion and Room Service, have closed or are being remodeled.

At Marquee, the West Chelsea club and gossip-page fixture, revenues are down 22 percent so far this year compared with last, said Noah Tepperberg, one of the owners.

“Three or four years ago it seemed like every bar in New York had a rope and some imposing looking guy,” said David Rabin, an owner of Lotus and the president of the New York Nightlife Association.

Now, he said, haughtiness is as stylish as a balloon payment.

Club owners are searching for a new night-life formula, something that jibes with the culture’s low-key mood and yet shakes free whatever is left of the city’s disposable income.

“People are still looking for what is the right approach here going forward,” Mr. Rabin said. “There is a lot of uncertainty.”

Ideas differ, but the owners agree on one thing: the word “club” has about as much cultural relevance as the Macarena. And they go to lengths to avoid the word. Mr. Tepperberg, for instance, is calling Avenue, his newest endeavor that opened last month, a “gastro-lounge.”

Starting in the 1970s, New York clubland was defined by the disco balls and powdered noses of Studio 54. A decade or so later, the mega-club reigned, in an era fueled by the drug ecstasy and presided over by the nightclub impresario Peter Gatien, who lured thousands of bodies nightly to his clubs Limelight, Tunnel and Palladium.

The turn of the millennium saw the rise of bottle service and the $18 cocktail at glittery spots like Marquee, Tenjune and Bungalow 8, which attracted celebrities and models, and then charged regular folks a fortune to rub elbows, and sometimes knees, with them.

Now, said, Mark Caldwell, author of “New York Night: The Mystique and Its History,” the city seems to have passed into one of its in-between eras, too much money and glitz having poisoned whatever youthful edginess club culture once had.

“Night life in the city feels tired,” said Mr. Caldwell, who teaches urban studies at Fordham University and who lives in the meatpacking district. “It feels like it’s chasing itself to stay at the edge.”

Some night life operators are looking to the past to find a formula that will bring out bodies. In the late 1990s, after Mr. Gatien’s empire fell, there was a craze for lounges, with many clubs dragging studded couches and lamps with Victorian red shades into spaces once occupied by dance floors.

Now, they’re back. The Ballroom at the Jane Hotel, which opened in June in the far West Village, has stuffed leather couches and, a metaphoric work of art hanging from the ceiling, a broken disco ball.

One floor of the former Lotus space is being replaced in the fall by Abe & Arthur’s restaurant and another by Simyone Lounge, both named after the grandfathers of the three main partners, Eugene Remm, Mark Birnbaum and Michael Hirtenstein, the owners of Tenjune. Grandfathers did not used to be the models of downtown cool.

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