There hasn’t been much good news lately on NYC’s live music front. Every few weeks it seems another venue closes so another bank branch can open. Those that remain are hassled constantly for violations of the city’s draconian noise laws.
So it’s especially heartening to witness the creation of Bar LunÀtico, a Bed Stuy bar and performance space, conceived and designed by its owners, musicians Rosita Kess and Richard Julian. The bar at 486 Halsey St. will formally open on Friday, December 5, and Brazilian musicians Mauro Refosco and Guilherme Monteiro will break in Bar LunÀtico’s stage.
The business is very much a family affair from the photo of Kess’s uncle “Lunàtico” Alcide Ziroldo that hangs behind the bandstand to the presence of 2-year-old Floyd riding his scooter back and forth from the front door to the kitchen. When I visited in November, workmen came and went, checking in periodically with Kess and Julian, who since buying the building now live upstairs.
Both partners said the bar was their dream, but perhaps Kess has been dreaming of it the longest. Her family opened a music bar in the Veneto region of Italy, a family business that started small and unexpectedly became a big success. So the seed of a dream was planted.
Julian also had some thoughts along that line, even before meeting Kess. He moved to NYC in 1986 and worked day jobs for some 15 years before surviving solely on a recording and touring career, fronting his own band as well as playing in others, notably with Norah Jones and the Little Willies. But a career in music has always been a gamble, and with the total transformation of the music business over the past ten years, it became even less reliable.
“I started looking at the dwindling recording revenues in this digital age,” Julian said, “and started thinking of some other means of staying afloat. I’m a singer/songwriter for the most part, not a musician for hire. A musician for hire can move from job to job. But what I do requires a lot of investment which, in the old days, came back to you in the form of royalties or touring opportunities derived off of a record.
“But the record industry has become difficult to navigate because nobody’s buying CDs or records,” he said. “I still write and perform and that is my main passion in life, but having a club downstairs has always been a bit of a fantasy as well.”
The dream of a club took on added impetus when Kess and Julian went on their first date to Bozu, a Japanese tapas bar in Brooklyn.
‘The first night we went out he made me a margarita,” Kess said. “He has a passion for good tequila. And he said, it was always his dream to work in a bar and I said, mine too! I had never shared that with anyone else because it was always something kind of remote but I always think, when I see a place that I love that I think I could do that too. It was just talking and dreaming.”
But the dinner they shared was significant, as they spent the next six years together and welcomed Floyd in 2012.
While pregnant with Floyd, Kess went to New Orleans to write and record her record that bears his name: FLOYD or For Love of Your Desire. Julian accompanied her and the two were so taken with the city and its food and music that for months they wavered between NYC and NOLA and even somewhere in Europe for the location of their new enterprise. But they finally narrowed the choice to the U.S. cities.
“It took us two years to decide on the place — New York or New Orleans?— and we were going crazy,” Kess said. “Crazy because the two places are so different, so we were traveling and thinking and finally we decided on New York because most of the musicians we know are here and it was already our home. But New Orleans has given me so much in terms of freedom and inspiration and most of the colors that we picked for the bar are inspired by the colors of the houses there. My dear friend Jon Cleary is one New Orleans musician who will be playing at Bar LunÀtico.”
But where to find the right space? They didn’t want to rent, they wanted to own a building where they could live upstairs. As this is New York City, real estate was not exactly easy to procure. Even when they found buildings they thought they could afford with a mortgage, wealthier people with cash offers grabbed them up.
“We finally took on a partner and one day we went for a ride and saw this place for sale, “Kess said. “We made an offer and for the first time, the offer was accepted. And so back in April, we bought this building. The décor all comes from me and Richard —the experiences we have had and traveling — I wanted to make the place feel and look like everywhere, so you don’t quite know where you are.
‘You could be in South America, because I come from that background,” she said “My grandmother is from Argentina, and so I got this old Argentine-looking bar, I had a book called Bars in Buenos Aires, for inspiration. I just wanted it to look different from every other place that I’ve seen. I didn’t want the new Brooklyn industrial thing, even though I love that, I just wanted something colorful that felt like a home.”
“We’re at a point right now where we really know what we want,” Julian said. “Rosie is very headstrong about the design. She knows what she wants, but we don’t always know how to get it done — how to realize something as opposed to just conceive of it. So when it came down to designing the place and the architecture, we talked to a bunch of people and no one inspired us much. Then we thought of Makoto Suzuki, the guy who owns Bozu. We ended up working with his people, which was interesting because everyone involved was Japanese or Korean and here we were building this almost North African feeling music den. But I love the casual air of Bozu and they brought a lot of that sensibility. I’ve always been in love with this guy’s style. Also we know the manager there, an Italian woman from Verona, and she’s going to manage our place as well.”
Bar LunÀtico is not going to be a restaurant, but they will serve some tapas along with beer, wine and cocktails.
“We will serve “cicchetti,” basically tapas but specifically from Venezia,” Kess said. “Traditionally, you eat them as an appetizer. You have a little glass of wine, and, you just stand at the bar. And you have hundreds of these beautiful handmade little cicchetti —maybe a half egg marinated with sardines on top, bacalao which is codfish marinated in some secret recipe, maybe a little piece of octopus. We’re going to start simple with a little focaccia with some cheese imported from Italy, we just picked the cheese and wines. I’m going to cook and find somebody that can help me. Richard has learned how to bake focaccia, he makes four or five different versions, some with tomatoes and basil. I don’t want it to be fancy. Here, everything that’s Italian becomes fancy and expensive. I don’t want that, I want it to be accessible.”
They are in the process of hiring a bartender.
“We’re still building the bar menu,” Kess said. “We want to have some really affordable drinks, great tequila and then music.
“ The music is the first thing and it’s every night,” she said. “We will specialize in what we love –Fatboy Kanootch, Clark Gayton, Brian Mitchell, Forro in the Dark, fado from Portugal, music from New Orleans, a piano player, even a big band although the stage is small. Our partner Arthur Kell with his Arthur Kell quartet will curate Monday nights. We’re going to do a lot of residencies so the neighborhood can fall in love with a band and know when they can come hear them again. “
On this day, while Kess was planning the menu and entertainment, Julian was helping to install lighting behind a neon bar sing they found on the sidewalk. Every detail has been micromanaged by the couple down to the toilet paper holder. They also removed and reinstalled the old tin ceiling in order to add layers of soundproofing so Floyd will be able to sleep when a band’s playing downstairs. At one point, Julian put a note on Facebook looking for a carpenter. A fan of Julian’s music came down from Connecticut to help with the apartment upstairs while the crew was building the bar downstairs.
The big education for me was about lighting,” Julian said. “When we were doing the paint job, there was all this old crude fluorescent light stuff around, and sometimes I thought the place looked really out of focus. I was told to wait until we got the lighting all hooked up and indeed, with new lights and bulbs, it looked amazing!”
Kess and Julian are confident that the bar will be a wonderful experience for Floyd as well.
“It might seem like an odd thing to say about a two-year-old, but part of this bar is for Floyd,” Julian said. “I don’t want Floyd to just grow up isolated from the things we love and believe in. I think it’s sad that in America, we can’t take him to most of the places we love to go. I want Clark and Brian, Jesse, and other people we know and love in New York having dinner in our living room upstairs before they come down and play and Floyd coming down on occasion too. My original plan was to just have a bar and music. But one of the reasons I agreed to have food here is that food will allow someone his age to be down here to hear music.”
“Most of our friends with kids have moved upstate or to Europe,” Kess said. “I felt tempted to move back to Europe myself at a certain point but instead I felt determined to build this in New York, while raising Floyd and working on my own music career at the same time. I wanted it all! I’m young enough and have the energy for New York. It’s not easy, but there’s always time to move to the country in Europe and retire in a “casolare” at some point. Because it’s there where I think I belong and want to die.”
For more information on Kess and Julian, see