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Joseph Leonard: Not Your Grandfather’s Bar

Joseph Leonard is dark and cramped – just like watering holes were when Joseph and Leonard, the grandfathers’ of proprietor Gabriel Stulman, were young. On a confusing corner of Waverly Street in the West Village, this discreetly signed ‘bar with serious food’ blends into the surrounding neighborhood – only distinguishable from the white-clapboard and brownstone townhouses by the raucous noise reverberating from inside. The look is vintage Americana with decor sourced from antique shops and flea markets – think: imaginative art selections, stacked soda crates, chalkboards, and quirky accents like a classic coat-hanger (unused). Inconsistently white-washed exposed brick, low lighting, and crooked seating stuffed around the central bar further enhance the uber-hot ‘old-fashioned’ vibe.

Joseph Leonard is more bar than restaurant with a raucous and young crowd. At 6:30pm on a Sunday, there was no wait for a table at the tiny no-reservations spot, yet every bar seat was occupied by loud and rollickin’ singles. With little to no effort put into acoustics, one peal of laughter sounds like a lion’s roar; a drunken conversation is amplified to manic shouts; the general hum of chatter is transformed to an ear-splitting din. You’ll be lucky if you can hear yourself think.

While the atmosphere is inarguably bar-like, the seasonal American food is surprisingly imaginative and delicious. The menu features classic dishes from across the continental United States, including Southern shrimp & grits, a New England-like chilled lobster tail, and a New York strip steak, as well as European-flecked fusion options like beef tartare with onion rings, a salt cod brandade, and mushroom & english peas gnocchi. Menu highlights include the salty and savory beef tartare, topped with three perfectly-fried onion rings, the remarkably delicate shrimp & grits, and the complex layered zucchini tart (best savored without the overwhelming nicoise olives). The chilled lobster tail is voluptuous, yet strangely lacking in flavor; a good dollop of melted butter and a side of lemon would’ve done the trick! The beets starter with goat cheese croquettes is truly luscious with fat red and yellow beets and three lightly-fried croquettes that utterly ooze goat cheese when cracked open. The food is generally simple, yet well-executed and seriously satisfying; the flavor combinations just work and the astonishing number of possibilities for such a small place is impressive.

Joseph Leonard is a bizarre sort of place – a restaurant that you’d really only find in New York. Instead of being a serious sort of restaurant with fancy dishes that often disappoint, this unassuming hole-in-the-wall embraces its bar room roots while still churning out sophisticated and accessible American fare. Just be prepared to shout your way through dinner.

Perfect For: daytime drinking bonanza, awkward first dates, indulging in high-quality bar snacks, happy hour cocktails, bros night out, hobnobbing with hipsters

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