Veteran bartender Toby Cecchini is often credited as the creator of the popular cosmopolitan cocktail. On Monday afternoon, the 44-year-old author and bar owner prepared for another pivotal moment in his illustrious career.
“I’ve actually never closed a bar in 21 years of bartending,” he said. “This is going to be a first for me.”
Mr. Cecchini’s tiny dive bar Passerby, at 436 West 15th Street, is scheduled to serve its last round of drinks on March 29 after nearly a decade in business in the rapidly gentrifying meatpacking district.
Originally established as a hangout for artists and patrons of the Gavin Brown Enterprise gallery, formerly located next door, the sometimes unruly, roughly 700-square-foot watering hole also served as the setting of Mr. Cecchini’s 2003 book, Cosmopolitan: A Bartender’s Life.
“It’s not that we’re not making money,” Mr. Cecchini said of his beloved bar’s pending demise. “I mean, the bar is crazy busy right now.”
And he had planned to stay in business for at least another seven years under the bar’s existing lease. A demolition clause, though, abruptly terminated that deal.
The Meilman family, which owns the building as well as several other properties in the neighborhood, intends to tear it down in order to add air rights to a forthcoming condo development just down the block.
“I’m demolished,” Mr. Cecchini said, “not just that I’m losing my bar, but in a much more macro sense, this bums me out for New York City.
“It would certainly be better if nobody has been in the bar in six months and we can’t pay the bills. Then I could understand why we’re closing,” he added. “Trying to convince myself that, like, this is all going to be pulled out in six days, I still can’t get it through my head. It’s sort of madness.”
Mr. Cecchini initially hoped to fight his untimely eviction. His business partner, gallery owner Gavin Brown, whose name adorns both the lease and the liquor license, didn’t want the hassle of a costly legal battle.
The business is expensive enough these days, what with the monthly rent jumping from $2,500 when the partners first opened the place in 1999 to the present rate of $13,500.
“The meatpacking district has grown up around us in the past decade,” said Mr. Cecchini, who has noticed a significant shift in clientele, as chic boutiques and trendy motels move into the once seedy area. “Most of the art world and stalwart regulars have been pushed out by the Williamsburg kids and bridge-and-tunnel crowd. I can show you a really amazingly funny little timeline that one of my bartenders drew. Under 1999, it says, ‘Models, rock stars,’ and under 2008, it says, ‘Moms and men from Europe.’”
It’s been a rapid transformation, said Mr. Cecchini, who compares the changes to Soho in the 1990’s, back when he managed the Soho bar Kin Khao. “I’ve watched the meatpacking district turn into Soho so much faster. The change was a decade in Soho. The change was three years in the meatpacking district—from tranny hookers to Stella McCartney.”
Years earlier, back in the 1980’s, Mr. Cecchini worked at Keith McNally’s illustrious Odeon restaurant. It’s not only where he met up with his future business partner, the gallerist Mr. Brown, but also where he made history. Sort of.
“I didn’t invent the cosmopolitan,” he stressed—reiterating a point that he tried to hammer home in his 2003 book. Many historians trace the modern cosmo recipe’s roots to either Mr. Cecchini or to a Miami bartender named Cheryl Cook. (“It was actually my agent’s idea to name the book Cosmopolitan,” he noted. “He’s like, ‘It’s the thing that has haunted you forever. You have to address it.’” )
“There was a drink called the cosmopolitan before,” Mr. Cecchini explained. “I basically made the drink that is now known as the cosmopolitan.
“When I got it, the cosmo was like a really crappy kamikaze, you know, dyed red,” he went on. “I just turned it into a sour. Really, it’s nothing but a vodka sour with a little dash of cranberry to make it pink, albeit a really well-made sour with Cointreau. I also used Absolut Citron, because it had just come out, and fresh lime juice and a little dash of cranberry.”
Mr. Cecchini first started bartending simply to pay the bills while pursuing his dream of becoming an author. But things worked out a bit differently. “I sort of reached the acme of my writing career, strangely, through bartending, and I also have reached the acme of my bartending career through writing,” noted the oft-published writer, whose work has appeared in GQ, Slate and The New York Times.
Now that Passerby is closing, the nightlife vet is considering opening another venue. (Several investors have already approached him, he said.) “I think a lot of what Passerby was was this strange collusion between Gavin and I. Him setting up the place and me running the space. It’s this sort of high-low aesthetic going on where it’s a dive bar, but it’s a very intellectual dive bar. Part of me is frightened that this was really successful because of exactly what it is and where it is. And if I go try to do it somewhere else, it’s a completely different set of parameters.”
In the meantime, he’s got plenty of other fodder from two decades behind the bar that didn’t even make the first book. (Another is in the works, he said.)
“Have I written about the toilets?” Mr. Cecchini pondered. “I got a call from a bartender on a Tuesday night, which is a relatively quiet night, and he’s like, ‘Dude, you’ve got to come down here.’ There was water just pouring out of the hallway. Someone had categorically smashed to pieces both toilets in both bathrooms with a ball-peen hammer or something. … I think about this when I see that Audrey Sanders has, like, carved wooden sinks at Pegu club and whatnot. In my bar, someone would take a chain saw to them in, like, 13 seconds.”