A Saloon for the Downtown Fashion Set
Evan Mock, the 25-year-old skateboarder, “Gossip Girl” actor and Calvin Klein model, was cast in amber light, leaning up against a pine wall at the River, a new bar on Bayard Street in Manhattan’s Chinatown.
He was chatting with two of the bar’s owners: Aaron Aujla, 36, and Benjamin Bloomstein, 34, the men behind Green River Project — an of-the-moment design firm known for its dark, tactile, wood-forward interiors and furniture. “This place is about 30 percent mahogany — that’s pine, that’s ash,” said Mr. Aujla, pointing to variations in the floor and furniture.
Mr. Mock, a handy guy himself, ruminated about buying a chain saw. He had used one to cut wood for a makeshift hot tub. Then the conversation shifted seamlessly to fashion. Mr. Mock was wearing a vintage Carhartt jacket that had been upcycled by Bentgablenits, a rarefied fashion label that has collaborated with Byredo and Levi’s. “Pharrell’s manager put me on to them,” Mr. Mock said. “They’re coming up.”
It was the bar’s opening night in late March and, despite a hiccup with the liquor license — only Shirley Temples were served — the place was buzzing. The intimate space was heaving with downtown art and fashion world figures: the photographers Ryan McGinley and Tyler Mitchell, the artist Nate Lowman and the stylist Haley Wollens.
The fashion designer Emily Bode, Mr. Aujla’s wife and a co-owner of the bar, was directing the musical programming. “There will only be American music at the River, except for Neil,” she said, referring to Neil Young, a Canadian, who soon came on the speakers.
A year in the making, the River is the latest thumbprint that Ms. Bode, Green River and their circle have left on their teak-toned corner of Manhattan’s Lower East Side and Chinatown. The first was the Bode retail shop at 58 Hester Street, a destination for their circle of in-the-know art school grads with deep, perfectly tailored, pockets.
That was followed by a tailor and coffee shop next door — both wood-centric spaces designed by Green River. Then there is Dr. Clark, the Hokkaido hot spot next door at 104 Bayard Street, in the space formerly occupied by Winnie’s, a Chinatown karaoke joint. Opened in 2020 by Yudai Kanayama (of Izakaya and Nowadays) and David Komurek, Dr. Clark is social catnip to models and scenesters, who squeeze into sunken seats on the sidewalk.
The River was born from Dr. Clark’s need for space. When the lease at 102 Bayard Street came up for grabs, Mr. Komurek snatched it, in part to preserve Dr. Clark’s extended outdoor dining in front of that address.
“We built this place for us and our friends,” Mr. Aujla said. “We felt something like that was missing in our neighborhood.”
A decade ago, when he and Mr. Bloomstein were artists’ assistants in the Lower East Side, and Ms. Bode was a student at Parsons, their after-work revelry would take place in the studios, and then spill into local dive bars like Milady’s. “We wanted something that was a little bit more hidden, and felt a little bit more precious than Dr. Clark,” Mr. Komurek added.
The River looks like no other bar in New York. Patrons enter through a narrow, low-lit wood-paneled hallway that leads to two saloon doors crafted by Mr. Bloomstein in sarsaparilla, a climbing vine native to the Amazon rainforest. “If you scratch it, it smells like root beer,” he said.
Beyond the doors are 600 square feet of wood, whiskey, warmth and more wood. The bar is flanked by large ash tree logs that had been infested with emerald ash borer beetles and removed from the property that Mr. Aujla and Ms. Bode own near Great Barrington, Mass.
For the chairs, of which there are only a dozen, they used branches and twigs collected on Mr. Bloomstein’s family farm, in Hillsdale, N.Y., where Green River keeps a studio. (The Green River, which runs through that property, inspired the name of the company, while the name of the bar itself refers to both the studio and the Hudson, which is depicted on a 100-foot long oil painting, separated into panels, along its walls.)
“To collect thousands of sticks and figure out a way to work with those materials, it reminds me of making sculpture,” said Mr. Aujla, who is originally from Victoria, British Columbia.
To get the bar the perfect shade of brown, Mr. Aujla and Mr. Bloomstein used a wood finish made from coffee and shellac, a process that is occasionally used in model making, but is uncommon in woodworking.
“Ben and I think about the color of whiskey and the color of tobacco all the time,” Mr. Aujla said. “Those are our first cues for design.”
Ms. Bode brought to the project her passion for repurposing vintage fabrics. Over the bar is a valance made from embroidered velvet from the 19th century. “It was likely used for around a window in a parlor, or the canopy of a bed,” she said.
For the servers’ uniforms, Ms. Bode reproduced a dress designed for Neiman Marcus in the 1960s, and crafted it in a tobacco color. “I would call them reimagined satin sailor coats,” she said. “They’re youthful. They’re satin with white cording as the trim.”
Initially, Ms. Bode designed a tuxedo for the bartender — inspired by the suit the designer’s grandfather wore to his graduation from Yale in 1940. When it proved too restrictive, they switched to a white Bode shirt (though it’s sometimes worn with a collarless black satin jacket with ecru trim, crafted by Ms. Bode to match the server uniforms).
The daily cocktails ($16) are handwritten on a piece of computer paper. There are also traditional highballs, old-vine American wines and hard-to-get American whiskeys, like Weller Antique and Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve (aged 23 years), that are “allocated,” in bar speak, to certain establishments.
“We’ve also been selling a lot of the 25-year-old Laphroaig,” Mr. Komurek said. “That Scotch goes for $130 a shot.”
There is also a limited snack menu including popcorn ($6), olives ($6), sliced coppa ($12) and American caviar served with crackers and crème fraîche ($75).
That said, the liquor, its provenance and price, are beside the point. The River is both the hideaway for Mr. Komurek and a place to see and be seen. Another partner, Yasmin Kaytmaz, 26, a former manager of Dr. Clark’s and Lucien, has an enviable list of “it” people in her contacts.
Regulars have included the model Ella Emhoff, who is the stepdaughter of Vice President Kamala Harris; the playwright Jeremy O. Harris; and Salima Boufelfel and Roberto Cowan, who own the shop Desert Vintage on Orchard Street. The women from the Drunken Canal, the artist Aurel Schmit, the actor Aziz Ansari and the musician Lizzi Bougatsos of Gang Gang Dance have all been through.
Parties have been held here for the Gagosian artist Kon Trubkovich and the buzzy modeling agency No Agency. And after Balenciaga’s party at 88 Palace last month, the staff trotted over to the River, and Ms. Kaytmaz kept the bar open for them.
A few weeks after the official opening, with the booze finally flowing, Mr. Aujla and Mr. Komurek sat at a corner table, discussing their decision to cover up the bar’s only window. “It has that Chinatown feeling,” Mr. Komurek said. “There’s so much secret stuff happening in Chinatown.”
Mr. Aujla laughed. “It looks closed,” he said.
The two became distracted with the ideas of future projects. “Let’s open more stuff on Bayard,” Mr. Aujla said. “There’s a Thai shop next door.”