It’s Hip to be Square On the Upper East Side

The Most Happening Neighborhood That Isn't Actually Happening

Auction house

ON A RECENT warm Saturday night, Second Avenue was filled with the young and old and not many people in between. Prosperous-looking older couples sipped white wine at the outdoor tables, looking tolerantly at the tides of teenagers drifting by, the girls clutching each other in the tipsy, excited way that made drunkenness seem almost sweet, like a kitten tangled in a ball of yarn.

It turned out all the in-betweens were hiding in Auction House, a comfortable bar on 89th Street. Inside, people chatted quietly on plush red velvet Victorian couches, relaxing under the gaze of somewhat naughty old-fashioned oil paintings in gilt frames.

Almost like Brooklyn, but there were no Urban Outfitted-collegiates (talk about exclusive: there’s a 25-and-older policy on Friday and Saturday nights), no taxidermy on the walls (in fact, the owner, a longtime vegetarian, has a no fur policy) and the bartender was refreshingly clean-shaven.

Auction House dates back to 1992—the year that New York magazine ran a Williamsburg cover story, calling it “The New Bohemia.”

“Back then, having antique furniture was really unique,” said owner Johnny Barounis, who also owns the Back Room on the Lower East Side. “At the time, I thought, ‘The style has been around for 100 years. It’s not going anywhere anytime soon.’”

A little something like the Upper East Side, maybe?

“I think it’s coming back. It’s very cyclical. I’ve been seeing an artsier crowd coming in to the bar. Back in the 1970s, it was a really cool place, there were clubs and it used to be fun to hang out up there,” said Mr. Barounis, who blamed the cabaret laws for killing the area’s nightlife.

Don’t believe it? Remember: Andy Warhol lived in a townhouse on Lexington and 89th between 1959 and 1974 in what is regarded as the first Warhol factory—it’s where he painted his soup cans. (Warhol, apparently unafraid of the negative stereotypes, moved in his mother and had 25 cats named Sam in the house).

This is where Joan Didion, “that consummate bard of cool,” spent much of her 20s living and roaming, drinking early in the mornings and pondering the “monochromatic flatness of Second Avenue, the fire escapes and the grilled storefronts peculiar and empty in their perspective.” Where writers and filmmakers like Woody Allen gathered to see and be seen at the nightly salon that was Elaine’s—a place where, as Jay McInerney told The Guardian, “You’d go to drink, have fights and make out with someone’s girlfriend in the bathroom.”

Mr. Barounis grew up in Queens and started out in the nightlife and entertainment business by working as a “pick and choose guy” at clubs. He’s lived in Manhattan for the past 30 years—he’s seen every variety of cool.  “I always thought cool was an intrinsic quality. I’ve had kids tell me, ‘I don’t hang out above 14th Street,” he laughed. “Hey, you’re from Columbus, Ohio, and you’re telling me about cool? I find that comical.”

And Mr. Barounis is not alone. Among the desirable establishments, new and old, in the neighborhood are breweries like Jones Wood Foundry and City Swiggers, the Lexington Candy Shop luncheonette, JG Melon, and on the upper edges of Lexington and Park, ABV, Earl and the Guthrie Inn. There’s also the 75-year-old butcher shop Schaller & Weber (which is keeping its head above water during subway construction thanks to orders from the beer gardens and artisanal-food-obsessed denizens of Queens and Brooklyn who would never dream of living on the Upper East Side). The newest addition is the Pony Bar, a popular Hell’s Kitchen craft-beer bar that opened its second spot yesterday on First and 75th.

“I think people will say, ‘I’m paying this for Jersey City and I could be paying the same thing for the Upper East Side?’” Mr. Barounis opined. “There’s a value up here if you can get over the stigma.”

It’s Hip to be Square On the Upper East Side