Before there was a neon sign above Old Timers’ blackout door, there was only a chalkboard easel. And that was enough in the early days — the thinly drawn happy-hour specials could pull anyone in.
From 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., you can get $2 off drafts, $3 well drinks and a $4 beer-and-shot. The deal and its extended time frame can take a commuter from hell to heaven as they push their way out of the J, M or Z at rush hour, shuffle down the stairs and land on the buzzy corners of Myrtle Avenue and Broadway.
An appealing happy hour was always part of the plan for Old Timers, which opened in November at 1157 Myrtle Ave., because it’s not the owners’ nor the staff’s first time serving the area. You could say they’re, um, old timers.
“Before we knew that we were going to be Old Timers, we thought about how everybody involved was going to be an industry veteran,” said co-owner Olivia Hu. “Everybody, from our carpenters, our crew and our staff, has been in the industry for a long time. Some have been bartenders for a decade or longer.”
Hu, who recently celebrated her birthday on one of the bar’s hit “Goth Prom” nights, can’t even remember how old she was when she started playing around in kitchens. The child of Chinese immigrants, she has memories of doing homework in a booth of a Teppanyaki-fusion restaurant her mom used to serve at in Reno, Nevada.
“There’s a culture of immigrating from China, where we use restaurants to help each other gain our citizenship here,” she said, the sun illuminating the otherwise dark bar. “Maybe that’s how we started ending up getting booths here. A reflection of those days.”
Hu started working when she was 15, in odd jobs and food service. She moved to New York to pursue an art degree at Pace University and worked as a barback in Tribeca until she found Sunrise/Sunset on Evergreen, where she’s been for four and a half years. She moved up from bartender to front-of-house manager, and even though she runs Old Timers now, she’s happy to help with administration duties—she lives around the corner.
Sunrise/Sunset is just one venue that cemented her friendship with co-owner Skylar Insler, who ran Alaska on Ingraham Street. The two have known each other for nearly a decade, from the local music scene and DIY shows, and he’d come to the bar every day for his favorite coffee drink. Coffee is something the business partners are gearing up to serve soon; they already invested in a professional-grade vintage espresso machine, with all its parts refurbished.
It’s a new business, and there’s a lot they want to do with the place. Right now, clearly, they’re focused on the bar side.
Hu brings her elevated palette and artistic background to the menu, where she created cocktails like the “Health Goth,” a seamless blend of green juice from Mr. Kiwi grocery across the street (a mixture of kale, cucumber, apple, ginger and lemon) with Kleos Mastiha liqueur, Laird’s applejack brandy, plus mint and pink Himalayan salt. It’s one of its four eccentric cocktails, like the “The Neighbors” is made with beet-jalapeno-infused Los Vecinos mezcal and garnished with rosemary olive oil—if you’re feeling too fancy for a beer-and-shot next to the foliage-lined walls.
“I love making drinks and being a craftsman in that way,” she said. “In the end, it’s a drink. You don’t have to be so self-serious all the time.”
It was the right time for Hu to open a business, she said, after putting so much into other people’s establishments. The space was large and the location was nostalgic: She moved to Bushwick in 2010, into an apartment on Myrtle Avenue and Hart Street. And when she lived on Jefferson Street, she walked right by the what would become Old Timer’s somewhat-secret entrance on her way to catch the train. She used to go to shows at Market Hotel. She played in bands. The neighborhood, with its great music scene and DIY feel, bloomed with local businesses in front of her eyes.
Leading up to the opening, on the rainy night of November 26, Hu realized that she’s become her own boss; she creates the culture. She’s serious about service going well, but she’s not about to “go all Gordon Ramsay on everyone.” The mosaic she made, sprawled between the bathrooms, spells out, “No Predators Allowed.” Safety comes first for bar-goers—seasoned bouncers man the doors—as well as her staff.
Their combined decades of experience is a plus for service, but it also means that they’ve brushed with the dark side of the service industry. A lot of Old Timers’ employees are women, and they’ve shared with Hu the toxic, abusive and oftentimes sexual behavior they’ve experienced from male bar and restaurant owners, like having lucrative shifts withheld for not answering 4 a.m. texts, or inappropriate power dynamics. One had a creepy boss who offered to give her neck massages.
“We’re just trying to form a community here where the staff feels that the boss, which is me, will never be part of that culture,” she said.
It’s serious, and she hopes to create a chain of a good culture in the neighborhood. But she’s also here to make sure people have a good time. Old Timers has what may be the only skee ball machine in Bushwick—and it just started hosting tournaments. Sunday features an all-day two-for-one drink special so you “get the most out of your weekend,” Hu said.
If there’s anything to take away, though, is how hard she worked to get this project with Insler off the ground. But it goes deeper, back to her heritage.
“Being first generation child of immigrants, that’s really important to me. My family sacrificed a lot so my sister and I could be here,” she said. “So it’s pretty special.”
Her mom, still in Nevada, hasn’t seen the bar yet. But her dad was in town when Old Timers was deep in construction.
“He saw the potential, though,” Hu said, “and was very excited for me.”
All images courtesy of Laura Thompson.
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