On paper, it should have been a recipe for disaster.
Converting a tiny garage in the shadow of the BQE into a bar was odd enough. Naming it after a mentally unstable and commercially unsuccessful novelist seemed to beg for a quick death knell. But, much like their literary idol, the owners of Exley have produced a small gem. Since the bar’s opening on October 3rd, Northside residents have embraced their newest watering hole for its elegant look and quirky brews.
Nestled near the corner of Union Avenue and Jackson Street, Exley is a cozy establishment, tastefully simple in design and décor. The front of the bar is mostly glass, decorated in the shape of doors and windows, and a pitched yellow pine ceiling directs the gaze of all passersby to a vibrant mural (painted by Brendan Smith) behind the counter. Once inside, the sloping ceiling and sizable skylight create the opposite effect of a vast, open space despite the actual 450 square feet allotted to patrons. In contrast to the usual Williamsburg style of faux Americana, the concrete floor and furniture, black leather seats and old science lab stools all announce a quiet durability. And the leafy view of Mt. Carmel Triangle right across the street creates a rustic charm despite the close proximity of a highway.
“Running a business is much like writing,” pointed out co-owner Matthew A. Ricke, who received an MFA in creative writing from Notre Dame. “You’re constantly revising and tearing things down to find that perfect line. Luckily, getting a bar together is more collaborative.” Ricke met his future partner, Brandon Chamberlain, while both were helping open an experimental bookstore in Indiana eight years ago. Before they parted ways, Ricke handed Chamberlain a copy of Exley’s “A Fan’s Notes,” a novel the latter would pore over during many a rainy night in Portland. Before reuniting in New York, both men had accumulated a wealth of experience in their respective fields. Chamberlain cut his teeth in the world of high end dining working under Sam Mason at Tailor (where he also served as general manager), then opening up sushi joint Sakura in Lolita and Alewife, a high end beer bar in Long Island City. Ricke developed a keen eye for design opening stores around the globe for Taschen, a German-based art book publisher.
“We each bring a unique perspective to the bar from our backgrounds,” said Chamberlain. “And that’s a commitment to the best ingredients, doing things the right way every time, and infusing the whole experience with the joy of interacting with people.” The veteran restaurateur also believes their blue color background (both came of age in small Midwest towns) helped inform the design of Exley. “The combination of high end and the industrial is like North Brooklyn in that respect,” he explained. “Design –wise, our bar is well thought-out and beautiful, but there’s also a spare, rough, edgy quality to it.”
The bar’s menu nicely balances neighborhood favorites like porters and IPAs with playful twists. Their Stone Smoked Porter ($6), for example, has a lean, chocolate-like camp fire taste, with hardly any of the muddy heaviness associated with malt. The Green Flash WCIPA ($6) comes loaded with American hops, a citrusy taste, and a floral smell not unlike a certain “green” plant popular among the youth. The Reissdorf Kolsch ($5), a light, slightly carbonated product made only in Cologne, proved so popular it sold out within a week. Among the cocktails, standouts include the Bellpepper Margarita ($10), tequila mixed with red bellpepper, jalapeno and lime to give a refreshing fajita taste, as well as the De La Louisane ($11), rye, punt a mes and Benedictine served in a glass rinsed with absinthe. Exley’s own drink of choice, the Vodka Presbyterian ($10), occupies special pride of place.
Tasty bites are also a mix of the simple with flare. Sea salt pretzels ($7), baked in-house, come with caraway mustard and ancho-chile chocolate sauce. Meatballs ($6) are served with a baguette. Meatball sandwiches on pretzel bread as well as Cuban sandwiches will soon be added.
Chamberlain and Ricke are also planning a slew of events. On Friday evening, October 12th, Exley will celebrate its collaboration with Ron Upperman, who painted a mural in its bathroom. Expect to see many visitors sporting Upperman-designed garb from his clothing line, LeRoy Jenknis Ltd. By that time, the owners will also have installed a projector, enabling them to screen both classic and indie films as well as Exley’s beloved New York Giants games.
It might be ironic that the owners find inspiration in “A Fan’s Notes,” a darkly comic account of alcoholism, mental illness and the dark side of sports fandom. But both continue to find solace in Exley’s struggles in the midst of their newfound success. “It teaches us the importance of being yourself,” explained Ricke, “and trying to achieve something out of nothing. Our goal was to create the nicest neighborhood dive bar of all time.”
One Jackson Street
Happy Hour 4pm-8pm
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