Technically Food

I can’t wait to have my terrible state-mandated sandwich at a bar tonight

If you lived in New York State in pre-Prohibition times, you would order your drink at the bar and it would arrive to your table along with an obligatory, often inedible sandwich. These sandwiches, sometimes literally made of rubber (or other times, as Jacob Riis noted in 1902, made of a brick between two slices of bread by saloon owners mocking the food mandate), were part of a charade known as Raines Law, named for a Finger Lakes-area lawmaker named John Raines, who oversaw the passing of the law in 1896. The law was intended to make it much harder for your local saloon to do what it did best by raising the cost of a liquor license; outlawing bars within 200 feet of a church or school; banning drinks on Sundays except in hotels (which led to the creation of a lot of sketchy hotels placed above saloons; and raising the drinking age. The inedible sandwiches barkeeps served fulfilled the legal requirement of serving food with every drink. 

Incredibly, this tradition has sustained itself for well over a century. New York’s State Liquor Authority has a longstanding rule that bars have to serve food on their premises, but Governor Cuomo expanded the mandate last month, requiring that bars participating in outdoor dining offer customers a “sit down experience,” complete with actual dishes of food. For bar owners barely keeping their heads above water amid a rent crisis during a pandemic, having to supply food to patrons probably seems, at best, like bureaucratic antagonism, a rule effectively serving nobody, and more political theater. For me, these government-mandated meals often take the Frankenstein form of a snack I’d only ever conceived of in desperation in my freshman dorm at 2 am after a long night out when the campus Taco Bell had already closed. Here, I will review the state-mandated bar foods I have sampled this summer.

Bar: Walter’s
Food item: Mini empanadas
Review: It almost feels unfair to lump Walter’s in with the rest of these bars because they actually do normally serve food and they do it well, and this extends to their Cuomo-mandated to-go drink/food menu. Four dollars gets you two mini empanadas, filled with spinach and feta, served unheated. While they certainly didn’t leave me sated, that is not really the goal here. 

Bar: Dick & Jane’s
Food item: Bag of chips
Review: It’s a bag of chips.

Bar: Weather Up
Food item: “Compliancy Sandwich”
Review: Appeared to be made of hot dog bun, bbq potato chips, and some sort of sauce element (?). Did not eat as we had just had dinner. If I had ordered a double Money Tree instead of a single I probably would have gone for it.

Bar: Baby Jane Bar
Food item: Nutella sandwich
Review: If you like the idea of nursing your cocktail alongside a schmear of Nutella stuck between two pieces of white bread, have I got the place for you. My first cocktail came with a sandwich made with very little Nutella and the heel of a piece of bread, which I respect because the contempt these bars reasonably have for Cuomo really shines through in the food they serve. 

Bar: Diamond Reef
Food item: Corn Nuts
Review: If you order actual food at the grill at Diamond Reef, you don’t need to get the corn nuts, but if you don’t order food, you will be asked to enjoy a small paper cup of corn nuts. As far as corn nuts go, these were pretty unremarkable, but you’re probably expressly not going to Diamond Reef for the food anyway.

Bar: Hops Hill
Food item: Lentil pasta soup
Review: Shockingly substantial. A bit salty. Would eat paired with my fancy sour beer even in normal times. 

Bar: Hartley’s
Food item: Popcorn
Review: Much like the other elements of Hartley’s, the popcorn left something to be desired. My drinking partner and I both ordered a drink that sounded like it was a paloma made with gin instead of tequila, and were disappointed by the cocktail — the sweetness was cloying. The location of the bar, on the corner of Grand and Putnam, does not lend itself to the best street-seating, so I sat at our table the entire time bracing myself to get side-swiped by a truck. The popcorn was stale.

Today is my birthday, and if you might ordinarily celebrate by buying me an overpriced drink or a glass of orange wine at a bar, might I suggest you join me in putting that money toward For the Gworls? It’s a fund raising money to assist with Black trans folks’ rent costs and gender-affirming surgeries.

As for me, I’m going to spend my day walking into Manhattan and buying wontons from Deluxe Green Bo, reading and journaling, and later getting drinks (and some chaotic, state-mandated snacks) with a few friends. I’ll spare you all the corniness but I’m feeling even more grateful this year than usual for good friends and good health and being able to have a “normal” birthday, more or less.