Bushwick Restaurant Hard Times Grows Up

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Nothing in the realm of small business is so like a rock ‘n’ roll band as the restaurant/bar with multiple owners — in this case the soon-to-be rebranded and renovated Hard Times Christmas Liquors At The Sunset Bar.

The resemblance is especially striking when many of its stakeholders are seen-it-all, tattoo’d industry veterans rather than dilettantes diversifying their investment portfolios — and when the enterprise undergoes a shakeup that sees the departure of some members and the addition of new ones.

Matt Marchese, Denis Bramley and Austin Hartman, owners of the restaurant that will be known as just Hard Times on October 6, sat for a candid, hour-long interview to talk more about what we can expect from the restaurant in future months.

This isn’t Hard Times’ first rebranding and renovation go-around. The business began as Montana’s Trail House in 2014, on the site of a defunct gas station and auto shop. The first revamp began in late 2017 and was completed early the following year. (Aside from the re-dubbing, changes included the installation of permanent Christmas decorations.)

However, all three men went to great lengths to dissociate themselves with that transition, from which was born the lengthy moniker it now sports, soon to be pruned back again.

“We didn’t have much to do with that,” chuckled Bramley, a bristle-bearded furniture maker and machinist. “That was the previous management.”

Marchese, a personal chef with a background in fine dining, nodded. “That first rebranding was super lazy. This time, we’re going to do it right. We don’t want to say too much, but basically, anything we found blatantly toxic we cut out. And we separated ourselves legally from the previous management.”

The most notable cut made is the titular Montana Masback, the man most responsible for the most recent rebranding and the restaurant’s face for much of its existence. While he is no longer a part of Hard Times, one holdover remains from his overhaul: the kitchen team of Matt Klein and Bill McGovern, aka Strange Flavor.

Alterations to the bill of fare will be made, but they won’t compromise the food’s inherent “crushability,” to quote Marchese. Dinner prominently features two burgers, one standard and one featuring two patties, braised bacon, blue cheese and Japanese kewpie mayo. For fowl lovers, there’s a chicken-and-waffle sandwich with roasted corn butter, coffee maple, garlic honey, pickled chili and scallion, and a chicken sandwich with ranch, blue cheese, celery, onion and romaine; snacks include buffalo wings, shoestring fries and vegan kimchi.

The bar program, meanwhile, rests squarely on the shoulders of bar veteran Austin Hartman. He, too, is planning a substantial retool, and he won’t alienate the casual drinker (the every day $6 bud-and-well-liquor deal will remain intact).

“The program used to be super experimental,” said Hartman. “With the re-launch, though, we’re taking some of that and making it more accessible. So there will be a scorpion bowl, but also a cocktail with rye, smoked maple syrup and fernet.”

A few more Hartman-authored concoctions include “Special Agent Cooper,” consisting of bourbon, drip coffee and cherry rum cream; and “Captain Stormalong,” with white whiskey, Campari, demerara sugar and Downeast cider.

Aside from physical renovations, Hard Times’ entertainment calendar is also being tweaked. Partner Chris Enriquez is in charge of events.

One feature Enriquez will be rolling out come early October is a Sunday brunch set to the twang-heavy vinyl collection of DJ Moonshine, a lover of old country music. All those tales of lovesick woe will be paired with brunch hangover palliatives like chicken and waffles, eggs Benedict (featuring hoe cakes and a crispy pork roll) and shrimp & grits.

Hard Times Chicken and Waffles

Additionally, Thursday through Sunday nights will feature several DJs, each with certain stylistic preferences, but all able, according to Bramley, to “read a crowd.” (Asked if live bands would feature on Hard Times’ entertainment calendar, Bramley stated firmly, “No, we’re doing away with that.”)

Enriquez has also enlisted the itinerant NYC entertainment phenomenon Kings of Karaoke, whose rabid followers cross multiple boroughs in order to trail after the outfit. Be warned: every Monday, the restaurant’s rough wooden interior will vibrate with the enthusiastic ululations of liquored, non-professional vocal cords. Mondays will also feature a $12 beer-and-burger deal, plus $1 wings.

A final “get” for the restaurant, according to Marchese, Bramley and Hartman, is front-of-the-house veteran Arryan Decatur (21 Greenpoint, Roebling Tea Room, Roberta’s). His bailiwick, naturally, is service.

Alterations to service, like every other change at Hard Times, is ultimately aimed at pleasing a diverse Bushwick customer base.

“They say [the space] looks great, better,” said Marchese. “It feels bigger, more roomy to them. Every few days we make changes to the restaurant and people remark positively on them.”

This trio of owners also sees a parallel between Hard Times’ metamorphosis and a Bushwick that is ever-changing — maturing, even.

“I’ve lived in Bushwick for ten years, and the amount of friends I have who’ve gone from drinking all the time to having kids is crazy,” said Hartman. “Dirtbags to diapers.”

“They’re still dirtbags,“ joked Marchese, adding, “with the transition we’re doing, it’s a graduation. Hard Times was a teenager and now it’s an adult; we cleaned up our mess and did the laundry.”


Hard Times




Thurs – Fri: 4 p.m. – 4 a.m.

Sat: 11 a.m. – 4 a.m.

Sun: 11 a.m. – 2 a.m.

Photos Courtesy of Hard Times

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