905 Lorimer Street, Brooklyn, 7 pm
Greetings from the kitchen at the grand opening of the Brooklyn location of Ray’s. I’m not here because I picked up a shift as a line cook, though it would be fun for a couple hours in a Lana Del Rey-working-at-the-Waffle House kind of way. Among the hot ovens and bags of burger buns, I’m speaking to Carlos Quirarte and Matt Kliegman, who (along with partner Matt Charles) are the masterminds behind Ray’s. And if Ray’s is Watergate, I’m both Woodward and Bernstein, and it’s too loud in the main room to talk.
For those uninitiated, you may be asking yourself: what, exactly, is Ray’s?
Maybe you’ve heard some friends talking about trying to get into the original Lower East Side location of Ray’s, to no avail. Or perhaps you know it as a place to see and be seen, where Justin Theroux has been spotted hanging out with Leonardo DiCaprio.
Then again, some may think Ray’s is a clothing brand, considering their logo-emblazoned hats and shirts have become coveted merch, worn to tell friends and family, “Hey, I drink at Ray’s.”
Ray’s is all of those things—Ray’s is a state of mind.
“Ray’s is not a dive bar,” Quirarte tells me as paper trays of fries are shuffled past us. “I hate that term.” Instead, Quirarte prefers to call Ray’s a “hometown bar.” According to him, dive bars aren’t big on cocktail culture, and have gross bathrooms to boot. I’m told the drinks at Ray’s are good. “Here we have espresso martinis on tap, Negroni on tap, Guinness on tap,” per Kliegman. I’d be derelict in my solemn duty as an investigative journalist not to drink them all and find out.
Unlike many who work in nightlife, Quirarte and Kliegman, are affable, soft-spoken fellows who exhibit warmth. (And I’m not just saying that in the hopes of getting a free drink the next time I’m there.) Despite it being a hectic, high-pressure night, they’re both pretty relaxed. It’s probably because the two are no stranger to popular watering holes, having the distinction of also being behind spots like Jac’s on Bond and Rockefeller Center’s Pebble Bar. Last year, Vanity Fair called their team “New York City’s foremost vibe creators.” Kliegman is also the co-founder and CEO of Black Seed Bagels, and you haven’t been under pressure until you’re dealing with un-caffeinated New Yorkers on the hunt for a bagel at 7 am.
While the Ray’s team wasn’t actively hunting for a second location, when the space opened up, it seemed like the right fit. “I think it took six weeks,” says Quirarte of the rather speedy process of bringing the new Greenpoint outpost to life. This space has been home to an array of failed businesses; among them, a French restaurant and a Mexican cafe. But in a neighborhood full of pricey, new-gen restaurants (alongside old school Polish spots), those eateries were plainly redundant.
According to Kliegman and Quirarte, Ray’s offers something decidedly different. “The best man from my wedding lives down the street,” says Kliegman, who himself lives just a G train ride away. “He said that this is what the neighborhood needs.” The speedy opening came from the fact that Julian Brizzi, owner of the building’s most recent restaurant tenant, Cool World, is another part-owner of Ray’s, and the bones of the former operation were already in place for Ray’s to swoop in.
What else is Ray’s? Looking around, one sees a decidedly western vibe. There’s wallpaper that exhibits a cowboy diaspora of cacti, horses, flannels and fences. The walls are lined with posters of John Wayne movies, retro Marlboro ads and, for a touch of class, a portrait of dogs playing pool. The Ray’s mantra is displayed above the bar: “A friendly place to hang your hat.”
I ask Quirarte why Ray’s always has lines out the door, and is expanding when there are approximately a quadrillion bars in New York City. “It’s that no-frills, no pretension environment,” he says. “It’s all word of mouth.” It also must help when celebrities are involved, including Theroux and Succession star Nicholas Braun; the latter is an investor. Still, they say they never planned on having a bar that attracts a celebrity crowd. “Gigi came in with a friend,” he says, presumably referring to model Gigi Hadid. “Dua came in here with someone, too,” he adds, leading one to assume he’s referring to Dua Lipa. The gist from the guys is: they feel relaxed in a place like this, and want to fit in like everybody else.
I order an espresso martini on tap, and it’s served in a beer glass. They temporarily ran out of martini glasses, perhaps on account of the open bar—coffee liquor brand Mr Black is sponsoring the night. I take one sip and know I will be up until well past dawn.
The small room is packed, and the DJ is playing Dion’s “Runaround Sue.” To my right, I see Braun, wearing a denim jacket layered over a white a hoodie—at 6′ 7″, he towers over the crowd. Nearby is Antoni Porowski, a frequent Ray’s barfly. He orders a drink, and I’m imagining him asking the bartender if they need anybody to make guacamole.
The crowd is full of characters. I chat with an off-duty bartender who “knows Justin” (Theroux?). Someone else I meet is behind a low-proof vodka brand called Body (tagline: “Drink Body”). Another person I strike up a conversation with is just a mega-fan of Ray’s, and had to see what all the fuss is about.
I’m sipping a Stevie Ray, which is essentially a margarita with pineapple juice. I’d like to get up, but I’m afraid I’ll lose my seat. Then again, I’ve been here since 7:30 pm. Justin Theroux appears, and if you thought he’d be sitting at the bar, you’d be mistaken. Tonight, Theroux is sitting on the bar.
Earlier, I asked the team if Ray’s is planning on expanding to yet another location. They’re open to it. So having said that, might there be a Ray’s Manifest Destiny westward, to Los Angeles, perhaps?
Quirarte is not feeling that idea.
If not L.A., where would they go? “A place like Tampa.”
Tampa? As in, Tampa… Florida?
“Yeah, or a place like Wisconsin,” which Quirarte tells me has the most bars per capita in the United States. In other words, no-frills locations for a no-frills kind of place.
I sip my drink. So, what is Ray’s?
It’s a bar.