Meet Sal Fristensky, the force behind Brooklyn’s most scene-defining dive bars
If you heard of Salvatore Fristensky, better known as Sal, you’ve probably been to one of his bars. The 41-year old local firefighter is the creative co-owner of some of Brooklyn’s most well-known watering holes including: Luckydog (2009), Skinny Dennis (2013), Rocka Rolla (2014), George and Jack’s Tap Room (2014), Do or Dive (2015), Horses and Divorces (2018), and Turtles All The Way Down (2018).
You read that correctly: he’s opened seven, successful, scene-defining Brooklyn bars in just one decade.
Barchive met up with Fristensky at his bar George and Jack’s Tap Room, which we learned was named in remembrance of his and business partner, Bill Mack’s, late fathers. He gave us the skinny on Brooklyn’s ever-changing bar scene, the success he’s found over the last decade as a bar owner and about how we need to rum another chance.
Barchive: So Sal! Tell us a little bit about how you got into the bar business?
Sal: I’ve always been a bar guy. I like bars and I’ve always liked hanging out in bars, especially dive bars. It’s where you get the more “salt of the earth” people, that motley crew of characters. So I opened a place in the East Village around 2007 with a bunch of guys I really didn’t agree with when it came down to designs, operations, what drafts beers we should have, what drinks we should have, what the food menu should be [etc.]. It didn’t really go well. I wanted to create a place that I would like to hang out in, so I opened Luckydog in Williamsburg.
Barchive: What do you like most about dive bars?
Sal: A dive bar is a great equalizer. It’s a place where everybody can go, whether you’re a guy who drinks $10 Old-fashioneds, $3 Miller High Life, you’re a $5 beer and shot guy, or what have you. Everyone is welcome.
To me, a dive means reasonably priced drinks, friendly bartenders, a casual, come as you are setting, lack of food, a real jukebox. Our bars may look like dives, but we run them like The Ritz. I think that’s really important. Our staff is really well taken care of, they take really good care of our customers. Our systems are really well run when it comes to maintenance and cleaning our beer lines. Having efficient air conditioning and heat, and a working sound system are all important.
I love things like mirrors in bathrooms, but people tend to break them. Any place where you’re going to leave someone unsupervised, something’s going to break. I probably go through a dozen toilets in every bar [of mine] a year, at least. You get on a first name basis with your plumber very quickly.
Barchive: So is there dive bar etiquette?
Sal: There are rules, you know? There’s a demeanor, a way to act, a way to order drinks, to get along. There’s an etiquette to it. In New York, and you see it in England, and in Ireland, it gets kind of walked on a little bit.
Like when it comes to cash. So many people pay with credit cards now. But when I sit at a bar, the second I sit down, I’ll throw $20 down. Sometimes they won’t even know what to do with it, you know? They’ll just look at me like “what is that?” It’s money! You get a Bud for $5, and you get your change back and leave it there. Growing up, when I started hanging out in bars, that was the thing everyone did: You throw money down and take from it with every drink. When you wanted to tip, then you push your money forward.
Barchive: How does gentrification affect a dive bar?
Sal: Do we have less business sometimes because nowadays people aren’t out drinking until 4 a.m., seven days a week? Let’s just say, when I first opened in Williamsburg, we’d have big crowds at 4 a.m. They’d drink a lot harder. Nowadays rents are higher and people have to work more to make more money to survive. So they can’t stay out. Back in the day when you could be an artist or freelance and do your thing, the whole night was a lot cheaper. I don’t fear change, not that you’re ever going to stop it. There’s always going to be pros and cons.
Barchive: What’s the best part about being a bar owner?
Sal: I think the best part, for me, is that I’ve been able to be successful in a business I enjoy. As opposed to say, if I ran a laundromat, it be wouldn’t be any fucking fun, you know?
Barchive: How did you create the themes for your bars?
Sal: I take something that I’ve seen and I absorb it. What do I like about this place? I love the music in here, or maybe the beer selection. I think, “this is a really comfy stool,” or “I like those lights over there.”
But even though all my bars are different, they all still have that general theme/common core vibe to them. [George and Jack’s] is a neighborhood Brooklyn Tavern. Skinny Dennis is Honky Tonk, Rocka Rolla is a metal/hard-rock joint. Do or Dive, you get into that nautical aspect, and Luckydog, I named it after my dog.
Barchive: What was the inspiration behind Skinny Dennis and Rocka Rolla? While still part of the general ~Fristensky~ brand, they do have more of a specific theme to them than some of your other bars.
Sal: I wanted to do a Honky Tonk bar because I had been hanging out in Texas, and I love traditional country music. People’s idea [of country music] in New York is that Nashville-pop bullshit, with the guy drinking a beer riding his tractor, cutting his grass or whatever. That’s not traditional, authentic country music! And I see these guys from Texas, come up here and play Irving Plaza or Bowery Ballroom, and I’m thinking “Why can’t they play country music in the corner of a bar?” So we started doing that at Skinny Dennis a couple of nights a week, and now it’s become seven days a week with free, live music. Then my partner [Mack], who’s like this hardcore, heavy metal, hard rock dude, goes “Well, you got your country bar, can I do a Heavy Metal jam?”
Barchive: So what’s up with Horses and Divorces?
Sal: When I did Horses and Divorces, it was harder because I got the space, and it’s a block away from Luckydog, and I’m like “What am I going to do?” If I didn’t do anything here, somebody else would and open a bar. So I focused on the idea that I really liked cocktails, but that it shouldn’t take you 20 minutes to get a cocktail with three ingredients. You go to some places and it takes 20 fucking minutes to get a cocktail, whether they’re shaking or stirring or straining or this or that. It’s not that hard to make a martini or a bunch of other iconic cocktails, so I thought “Why don’t we do a classic cocktail joint?” and 1970s the hell out it, give it that Regal Beagle kind of feel. And there’s that sexual energy from Burt Reynold’s Cosmo spread. Turns out people really like it. I went out on a limb that was a little off the wall for me, a bit of a gamble, but it’s really come into its own.”
Barchive: If you could be doing anything else outside the bar scene, what would you be doing?
Sal: I was going to say take a nap. I don’t know, man, my life is pretty content. I live well, I get to be a fireman and I get to hang out in bars. I don’t really know. I feel very fortunate and blessed that both my careers, my career, and my businesses, are things that I enjoy and get to do. I like being the guy at the bar hanging out with customers and the guy behind the scenes, doing the ordering, working with my staff, who are awesome, and just taking care of business and meetings.
I think back in the day, people used to feel bad that they went to bars. Like there was this negative connotation associated with it. And now? Even when I’m on vacation, I’m finding out the best local haunts and dives. What do other people do, go to museums? I go to a museum for five minutes, and I get anxiety. Especially if I’m hungover, walking around sweating? Get me out of here.
[Note: Sal highly recommends avoiding the Guggenheim hungover.]
Barchive: So you own seven bars in under a decade, which is a lot! Do you plan to keep going?
Sal: We never did this with the intention to keep opening bars, but we’ve had success with it. I had the Honky Tonk idea, and we ended up finding a space that was a great location but wasn’t being utilized. So that was the second place we ripped the kitchen out, made the bar longer. All of our places along the way, except for here and Horses, were once restaurants that were in great locations. That became sort of our MO: taking a restaurant, make it just a bar with more seating, some bar snacks, and that worked out. Now people send me like 10 listings a month, and if something catches my eye, I’ll look into it. But it’s never been this concept like “I want to take over the Brooklyn bar scene!”
I was happy with Luckydog and then happier with adding Skinny Dennis, then extremely happy with those two AND Rocka Rolla. And I just kept adding. It’s hard to turn down people who will come to me that I see potential and want to work with you. As much as I’ve opened, I’ve turned down probably hundreds of deals I’ve been offered over the last decade. I just wanted to do it with something I could enjoy. Money was never the driving factor.”
Barchive: Do you have any advice for anyone thinking of opening a bar?
Sal: It’s not as easy as it looks. People always think it’s awesome and just “Oh you can buy beer at this price and sell it at that price,” but they don’t realize there are attorneys, huge rent bills, utility bills, liquor licenses, insurance, lawsuits, and everything else that comes with it, too. Especially here in New York City, where they make it as difficult as possible to run a business. There’s some type of inspector at your door every day, or it’s the fire department, or the health department, the Department of Buildings, the DET, the ETA, etc.. There’s so much to it.”
Barchive: What’s your go-to drink?
Sal: Just one? Can it be seasonal? Because I’ll drink Rosé all spring and summer, and the rest of the year I’ll drink a Guinness with a whiskey, neat…have you not seen my ‘Rosé All Day” tattoo?
Barchive: Is there a drink you hate?
Sal: I hate Bloody Marys. They taste like a fucking salad.
Barchive: Wrapping this up, if you could Fuck // Marry // Kill your bars, which would you choose?
Sal: I would kill Rocka Rolla. Marry Luckydog. Can I fuck George & Jack’s AND Skinny Dennis? I love both of them depending on my mood!