Bar Upstart: Death to Liquor-License ‘McCarthyism!’

David Kaplan was delighted to open his “dream destination” on East Sixth Street. But never again!

“I’ll never open another bar, another restaurant, a deli, a fucking bodega—I’ll never open up anything ever again in New York,” he said. “It’s awful.”

Typically more of a “no worries” kind of guy, Mr. Kaplan has become rather jaded since first setting out to open a restaurant with an “old-world sort of feel, that sense of permanence,” as he put it, a place that “doesn’t look new” but “looks elegant, classic, comfortable.”

He called it Death & Co.

“Originally, we wanted to name the place Death & Co because of this pre-Prohibition poster that showed man’s decline through the use of alcohol,” explained the 25-year-old from Jackson Hole, Wyo. “It was this old flier given out by the Anti-Saloon League movement.

“If you can see the mural that we had done,” he added, pointing to a painting near the back of the gloomy joint, “that’s a recent interpretation. It’s this, like, rickety devil’s toboggan slide into a pit of death. And then it says, ‘Death & Co, Proprietors.’”

You might be wondering, What the hell was he thinking? How ironically risky to brand a bar in tribute to the temperance movement, especially in the East Village, where the modern heirs apparent to the ancient Anti-Saloon League are alive and fussin’.

“The irony is not lost on me,” said Mr. Kaplan, who, like many licensed operators in the area, has been wrangling with neighbors and regulators an awful lot lately. “The guy upstairs, who is really where most of our problems come from, has said in, like, everything ever posted, ‘They won’t last a year.’ ‘They’re gonna close down within a year.’ It’s like, so much for my sense of permanence.”

It’s been more than a year now since Mr. Kaplan, the venue’s majority owner, and his partner, Ravi DeRossi, first opened for business at 433 East Sixth Street, yet Death & Co. continues to cling to life.

The lounge was closed for one week this past December, and Mr. Kaplan shelled out a $10,000 fine, to settle paperwork errors at the state level; yet, days later, he was told that his liquor license still wouldn’t be renewed.

Death & Co. can continue to operate until mid-April, at which point Mr. Kaplan may need to sue just to stay in business. His lease doesn’t expire for another 10 years.

“I still have faith they will overturn their decision,” he said of state regulators. But, in case they don’t, he added, “I have three lawyers now, just for this.”

Although founded upon Mr. Kaplan’s vision for the interior design and deep passion for expertly prepared cocktails—his personal bookshelf is stocked with more than 70 books on booze, he said—the place is at least partially sustained with mattress money. Mr. Kaplan’s grandfather and great-grandfather used to own a large stake in the Sealy Mattress Company, which the family sold in 1986. The young aspiring tavern owner tapped into a small family trust to help finance the project.

“We got a sick deal,” Mr. Kaplan said of the location, spanning roughly 1,100 square feet on the ground level, with an even bigger basement, the site of a former French Indian restaurant called Raga. (He declined to divulge his monthly rent.)

Prior to opening, Mr. Kaplan and crew spent six months doing renovations, giving the place its “sort of edgy New York feel,” adorned with dark-stained wood panels, antique mirrors, rich suede banquets, black granite tables and a bar topped with white marble.

Enlisting bartenders from some of the city’s most serious drinking establishments, including Pegu and Tailor, the intimate 54-seat venue quickly became a destination for aficionados of all sorts of fancy concoctions, albeit not every single one.

Patrons would be ill-advised to order up a cosmo or so-called apple martini. “There’s never apple in a martini,” Mr. Kaplan pointed out. “You mean an apple cocktail.

“It’s hard not to be snobby,” he explained, “when you spend so much time and energy making these things happen. We juice everything fresh. We have tons of homemade bitters; we have five different types of ice.” (He would note that the place also serves small plates of “finger-friendly” food.)

Nearly the entire time that Death & Co. has been open, however, his license to sell alcohol has been in dispute. The existing permit, approved for the prior restaurant, expired last March, and the State Liquor Authority has refused to renew it, citing a business model “in contradiction with the method of operation and hours of operation originally filed with and approved by this Agency.”