Why Sunny’s is Everyone’s Favorite Brooklyn Fisherman’s Dive Bar

This singular Red Hook saloon is a long-standing hold-out in a neighborhood once replete with longshoremen

By Tim Sultan

Published on January 12, 2016

The bar counter was charred in places where cigarettes had been stubbed out. A painting of a horse hung on one wall in a spot where over time just enough sunlight must have fallen to bleach the head out: a headless horse in a nameless bar. A hook, which looked as though it once served as someone's prosthetic hand, dangled from a chain of Christmas lights. And high above the bar sat several model ships in glass cases. There were no pinball chimes, no televisions turned to hockey, no machines at all (other than the projector and the stereo tucked somewhere behind the counter on which Julie London was now singing). The letters AVENUE P pointed the way to the bathroom, but there was no signage that would give away the year or the decade we were in. Only the clothes of the customers revealed the era, and then only fitfully. The bar looked old and worn but not in the overly careful manner of certain New York saloons where amber beer seems to take on a whole new meaning.

My eyes came to rest on the barkeep. He was laughing, chatting, smoking as he made his way along his side of the bar with my next Rheingold. From a distance, he looked vaguely Native American, like Chief Dan George of Little Big Man fame. But he also resembled Tony Bennett, if Tony Bennett had last seen a barber in 1957. Up close, I decided that if one took Tiny Tim's hair and put it on Gertrude Stein's face, one would get a very good likeness of this man. From what little I had heard of his voice, he sounded kind of Irish, but when my beer arrived and I introduced myself, he said, "My real name is Antonio. Antonio Raffaele Balzano. But please. Call me Sunny." He gripped my hand in both of his and leaned across the bar.

He was tall and very slim but the features on his face were large and rounded as a ship's weathered figurehead. His eyebrows were two silver caterpillars that had come to a halt while walking Indian file across his brow. His fingers were as thick as a stout woman's wrists. In the shadows, he had appeared a little otherworldly and a little epicene—less the ghost of the Ancient Mariner than that of the Mariner's sister. But now he grasped my hand with the vigor and enthusiasm and curiosity of a man coming upon a compatriot after months lost in the jungle. It was a greeting startling in its sincerity and intensity, and one that I would come to see made to others many times. It expressed: “You belong.” To say that he exuded charisma would be like saying Mussolini liked to hear himself talk.

Antonio—Sunny—eventually continued on, stopping to speak with each person or party seated at the bar. I watched him and I watched how everyone else kept an eye on him, as if awaiting a turn to be in his company. He kept a cigarette continuously lit and often tilted his head back to blow plumes of smoke in the air. He sipped whiskey out of shot glasses that looked like thimbles in his hands while telling stories about rats he had slain at various times in his life. Though I only heard snatches, I assumed he meant the kind with whiskers and tails. He recited several lines of what I took to be Shakespeare. He pronounced words in a way I had never heard before. He might say, “I ate a plate of ersters and then I slipped on some erl on my way to the terlet.” He used strange words rarely heard in casual conversation, like “verbiage” and “personage.” And he used words strangely, saying for instance, “Within the framework that it is that it is that we're existing in.”

I was certain that I had never encountered a more arresting presence.

I soon learned that this bar of Sunny's, the bar with no name and therefore no listing in the phone book, had been in his family since the beginning and he himself had practically been born there. I also learned that it was only open every seventh day, like a roadhouse in the Old Testament. This struck me as less than sound business practice, but the business of running a bar did not appear to be the business that Sunny was in. I couldn't remember ever meeting someone so free of worry about making money, about rules, about doing things in the accustomed way. I noticed that Sunny carried a remarkably spare stock—a few staples, Romanian vodka, peach and blackberry brandies. Wino liquor. He served wine from cartons, strongly reminiscent of communion wine (though any priest serving Holy Communion with this stuff would quickly have a dwindling parish on his hands). Although there were vestiges of taps, there was no actual draft beer to be had; Sunny explained that he opened too infrequently to keep it fresh. If one was nevertheless dead set on having a beer, he leisurely reached behind him into a wooden cooler built into the back counter, not overly concerned whether it was Budweiser, Rheingold, Heineken, or Schlitz that he fished out. All beers—all drinks, for that matter—were three dollars at Sunny's. He showed even less concern if a customer, impatient for service, came around the bar and simply helped himself.

Sunny's Bar in Red Hook; Brooklyn, New York
Sunny's Bar in Red Hook; Brooklyn, New York

The author (right) and Antonio “Sunny” Raffaele Balzano at the onetime longshoreman bar that Balzano’s great-grandfather opened a century ago in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

Sunny was not in the least proprietary, at least not overtly. If a person expressed admiration or fidelity to his bar, he would say, “My bar? This isn't my bar any more than it's anyone else's bar. It don't belong to me. It belongs to each of you who have come here and have served to make it what it is that it is. It's our bar, aye?” He appeared to mean this in the most sincere way. It was an outlook that emboldened customers to make whatever contribution to the humanities they wished. There weren't always obscure films being projected or ingenious songs being sung, though a bakery-truck driver with a guitar and a Maine accent thicker than Edmund Muskie's usually got up once a Friday and sang of his Long Island route, “You can have it all / Any way you like / You can have it all / On the Jericho Turnpike!”—perhaps the most hopeful sentiment about a stretch of road since Nat King Cole first crooned, “You can get your kicks / On Route 66.”

There was a sense that one was off the leash here. The culture that I came upon at Sunny's was a distinct and self-generated one, as you might expect to find on an island far from any shore. If a stocky biker named Ross wanted to stand in the middle of the room and play two trumpets simultaneously, sounding less like Rahsaan Roland Kirk than a subway car's brakes thirsting for oil, Sunny was unperturbed. If a chauffeur wanted to noisily recite Harold Pinter (“You have a wonderful casserole … I mean wife”), Sunny was appreciative. If the rare woman patron, and an adult entertainer no less, wanted to perform an interpretive dance of Aphrodite's birth wearing something less than pasties, Sunny was understanding. And if a tugboat captain, addressed as Captain Ritchie both on and off the water, decided abruptly to yodel, and yodel very ably at that, Sunny loved it. He loved it because he seemed to love people in an absolutist manner that I had rarely seen. His affection for them, his curiosity about their histories, and his appreciation for their customs and eccentricities were apparent in the way he engaged his patrons and in his habit of extolling their virtues and their vices. He particularly loved vices. He always seemed to be exalting people, whether to their faces, behind their backs, or, as he often did, indirectly while telling a story.

Now, what can I get you, Timmy?” Sunny asked when he finally made his way back to my end of the bar. I had yet to be served but I felt no impatience. No one at Sunny's, on either side of the bar, was ever in a hurry.

Though usually a beer drinker of undiscriminating taste, impulsively I decided to ask for something different tonight. I ordered the first cocktail that came to mind. “You would like a Manhattan?” Sunny frowned. “Isn't that like going to Pittsburgh and ordering a Philly cheesesteak? We're in Brooklyn, Timmy.”

“I hadn't thought of it that way. Well, what do you think I should have?”

“I'm only bustin' your balls. You know I'm not a real bartender by any stretch of the imagination and the truth of the matter is that I don't have the knowledge as how to make a Manhattan. But … why don't you have a berlermaker?”

“A berlermaker?”

“Yes. A pour of whiskey into a beer. It's what the men working longshore used to drink.”

“A boilermaker?”

“That's what I said, Timmy. A berlermaker,” Sunny said with a grin. “Let me get that for you.”

As I watched Sunny make my boilermaker, pouring Four Roses whiskey into a collins glass and topping it off with Budweiser at a devastating ratio of one-to-one—a drink that would become “my drink” in the same way that I had begun to think of Sunny's as “my bar”—I thought to myself, not for the last time, that there was something timeless about him. He seemed to be a spirit sentenced to presiding over this bar for perpetuity. A kindlier version of Lloyd, eternity's bartender in The Shining.

I should have known better than to try and order a Manhattan. Sunny made conversation, not cocktails. He was, in fact, singularly inexpert at bartending. When one night someone asked whether they could have a martini, Sunny replied, “Yes, you may … but you're going to have to come around the bar and make it yourself!” So they did.

When he wasn't outright surrendering the bartending duties to customers, he was improvising as he went along. A wise guy's mistress once asked whether Sunny had any garnish for the Sex on the Beach she had ordered (God knows what he had put in it). “Certainly,” he replied, without missing a beat and taking one of her bronzed hands into his. “Love is a smoke raised with the fume of sighs,” he said. “Being purged, a fire sparkling in lovers' eyes. Being vexed, a sea nourished with lovers' tears.” He paused and gave her a meaningful look. “What is it else? A madness most discreet,” and handed her the glass. Somewhere, a maraschino cherry gave notice that night.

Sunny was staunchly impractical as a proprietor as well. Rather than install an ice machine, a bar fixture as essential as a Solomon Burke record, he emptied and refilled standard ice cube trays all week long until, by Friday, enough had accumulated to supply his one night of business. He kept the ice in a cooler below the bar, groping around with his hands when a drink required rocks. Although the digital age had arrived in America some years ago, Sunny continued to play beaten-up cassettes on a monophonic stereo. When there weren't fiddlers or accordionists communing in a booth, he would open a drawer and search through his modest selection: The Songs of Audie Murphy. Marilyn Monroe. Billie Holiday. Julie London. Nat King Cole. Jimmy Durante, on whom Sunny must have modeled himself during his formative years. He usually put on his most prized recording, Chet Baker's It Could Happen to You, several times a night. No one seemed to mind.

Excerpted from the book Sunny's Nights, by Tim Sultan (Random House, 2016). All rights reserved.

More Sunny's: Read our interview with author Tim Sultan for the story behind the story behind this great dive bar.

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