Raising the Bar: Meet Your New Favorite Dive
Lefty’s co-owner and chef, Ryan McDonagh.
One of the things I miss most about NYC is a great dive bar—though they’ve become much thinner on the ground in Manhattan, too, with the recent demise of such venerable dens of drunken debauchery as Motor City, Max Fish, and Mars Bar. I’ve missed the vibe of a good dive bar so much since moving here that I’ve often dreamed of opening one myself. Unfortunately (or fortunately, from a consumer’s perspective), Ryan McDonagh has beaten me to it with Lefty’s.Lefty’s at 105 Harrington Street, “The Fringe.”
Located on a deserted stretch of Harrington Street, in a neighborhood that has recently been rebranded as “The Fringe,” Lefty’s isn’t the kind of place you’re likely to stumble upon. This is by design. McDonagh wanted to create a space for himself, his friends, and like-minded people. It’s a destination, relying on word-of-mouth recommendations rather than walk-in traffic. This has made for a great crowd each of the four times I’ve visited. There is also a concerted effort by the city to turn The Fringe into a design district, and similar to the wildly successful First Thursdays a few miles down the road, where many galleries keep extended hours into the evening, The Fringe has now launched Third Thursdays in response, in which many design studios and creative spaces open themselves to the public once a month.Lefty’s kitchen.
If Lefty’s was only a bar, it would be special. But what makes it exceptional is the food. With a tiny open kitchen in the heart of the bar and no printed menus, but rather a hastily scrawled chalkboard hanging over the ovens, McDonagh has managed to create some of the finest examples of what he proudly calls “drunk food” that I have ever had the good fortune to enjoy. The menu changes regularly, and McDonagh, after owning a more commercial restaurant called Hello Sailor for many years, welcomes the opportunity to experiment. A good example of this on the board the day we met would be the bacon ice cream. But there are certain items that Lefty’s customers won’t allow to be taken off the menu. The Pulled Pork “Sammich” is smoked for eight hours in Lefty’s custom-made smoker, which resides in the outdoor-seating courtyard. It is then basted and finished in the oven for a mind-blowingly tender and tasty consistency, with just the right amount of spice.Pulled Pork “Sammiches” and Baby Back Ribs.
The Kentucky Chicken and Waffles is marinated in buttermilk for hours, then battered and fried on house-made waffles—I’ve felt obligated to try this road-food legend on several occasions across the U.S. and never found it to my liking. The Lefty’s version is just the right combination of savory and sweet, with the boneless fried chicken being among the best I’ve ever had. And the Applewood-smoked bacon on top is the perfect finishing touch.Kentucky Chicken and Waffles.
The highlight for me, though, are the Baby Back Ribs. I’ve been on BBQ road trips across America, to many a highly rated road-food rib shack. The ribs at Lefty’s would easily make my top five of all time. I had to eat them three times in the last week, all in the name of research, of course.
The soundtrack is dive-bar perfect: Pogues, Pixies, Misfits, Motörhead, and Johnny Cash jam together seamlessly. There isn’t a jukebox, but I would happily spend a quarter on almost every track they play. Retro is an integral part of the Lefty’s aesthetic. One young waiter had a Led Zeppelin “ZOSO” tattoo on his bicep—a logo probably twice his age. There are no fancy cocktails served here, but an interesting trio of savory shots that would go perfectly with the menu—the Oyster Shot, the Pickleback, and the Tequila Bolognese.McDonagh at the smoker.
When asked about what seems to me to be an explosion of young, creative businesses happening in Cape Town at the moment, McDonagh replied: “A lot of people are doing things with a dollar and a dream. Giving up their safe jobs and doing something they feel passionate about. Doing something unique and doing it well. And if you do that, there are enough like-minded people here to sustain it.”
In the case of Lefty’s and many of the other impressive new ventures here, I certainly hope he’s right.
Photos: Courtesy of Sean Shuter