I discovered Bob’s Your Uncle during the summer, when happy hour was the drinks time du jour, and patrons enjoyed outdoor seating. As I drank a Paloma, I watched regulars step away from their drinks and return with dinner for the table. Bob’s has no kitchen, explained one of my table neighbors, so they happily invite guests to bring their own food.
The neighbor proceeded to paint a picture of a community bar, the only one in a few block radius around Columbus and 106th Street. I hadn’t asked for an explanation, but I didn’t mind it either. He was animated; a local — he lives above the bar, in fact — and he truly believed that Bob’s Your Uncle is God’s gift to the drinking populace of the West 100’s. I didn’t catch his name, but that day he became my tour guide to Bob’s. The first of many.
As it turns out, Bob’s Your Uncle is a choose-your-own-adventure of a bar, and each adventure requires a new tour guide. The afternoon regulars, Saturday night partiers, the families, the teachers, the firefighters and the poor schmucks who can’t seem to get past a first date. Each group knows Bob’s as something else.
My first tour guide, Nelson Mendoza, can only personally tell me about the regulars who come on Thursday, Friday, and Sunday afternoon before five, but he does know the people that know about the other adventures, and happily puts me in touch. What’s important, he has told me (and likely many other newcomers), is that you find the Bob’s that works for you.
Nelson, fifty-seven, makes an exception for me, and invites me to the bar on a Wednesday afternoon, after a day working with lower school students with learning disabilities. A native New Yorker — “I’m not into baseball, but I’m a Yankees fan” — he moved from Queens to the Upper West Side in 1989, when the neighborhood was less Bob’s and more “crack, shootouts, gangs, [and] abandoned buildings.”
Nelson rocks a Marines-style haircut, short on the top, shorter in the back and on the sides; salt and pepper, emphasis on the salt. Average height with thick skin, wind worn from day-long bike rides around the tri-state area, he’s quick with a smile and a suggestive eyebrow.
He drinks the house beer, Bob’s Pilsner, and usually has one more than he says he will. The problem with committing to just two beers, as he does when we speak, is that his friends keep filtering in, and he has to goof off with all of them. But drinks conveniently last him two or three conversations — he tends to do most of the talking.
As a stream of consciousness commentary passes through him, Nelson keeps his head on a swivel, noticing the goings on in the bar and providing context. Introductions happen in passing. Half a word, a nod, and a smile is all Nelson needs to introduce me to my next tour guides.
On a quiet night when Nelson isn’t there, I speak with Mike Forsyth, “one of the good early-week bartenders,” according to Nelson. A musician who has worked at Bob’s since just after it opened, he’s got the lowdown on Bob’s’ early days. It opened to the public in 2015, replacing The Ding Dong Lounge, a punk club and bar eighty blocks North of its contemporaries. For a long while, the Ding Dong Lounge thrived, but Mike thinks nobody ever asked for “CBGB in the Upper West Side,” and eventually the loud punk spot left.
Danielle Savin and Megan Giometi took over the space, and imagined a bar that was more in line with the neighborhood aesthetic. No live music, no TVs, just a bar with good drinks and better vibes. Most of the guests at Bob’s opening were their friends, nearly all of them are now regulars.
Among the friends and family at Bobs’ early days were Christina Cooksey and Michael Johnson, a couple who knew Danielle from her time managing a bar in the west 80’s. Nelson sent me to them when I asked about the kids who frequent Bobs. The kids of Bob’s come in with parents, and walk around like they own the place, far more comfortable than me. They charm patrons and bartenders and order sodas with the same mischievous grin older regulars wear when they order a third beer.
Through community hangouts, says Christina, Danielle and Megan created “a gathering place for the community beyond drinking,” a place where kids can be integrated into the broader neighborhood community. Some Bob’s kids live on the block and some come because their parents get a drink while the kids take karate lessons across the street. There’s a Whatsapp group for the parents of Bob’s boasting at least six families, and more who just show up (there is an understanding, however, that when the sun goes down, the kids go home).
At night, when the families and older regulars have cleared out, a neon Jamison sign hanging on the exposed brick of the far right wall turns on. Underneath the Jamison sign, there is a shuffleboard table where patrons are asked to play by the house rules — “Don’t be a dick! Have fun! No sex on the table!!” — but on a Wednesday evening, a couple comes close to breaking the last of the rules, aggressively making out on the worn lip of the shuffleboard table, while a couple on a first date awkwardly sip ciders. True to Nelson’s analysis, the couple with the ciders exert a far stronger gravitational pull, the bartender sneaking looks as he rubs glasses dry.
Mike is on bartending duty that night, and he knows about the dating scene at Bob’s better than most. A veteran of Bob’s dating, Mike met his now-wife at the bar, and the couple celebrated their engagement there as well. Sitting outside while he pulls from a one-hit bowl, Mike laughs about the few noteworthy moments in Bob’s after dark, moments that Nelson repeatedly bragged he wasn’t around for.
There was the fight between two regulars one New Year’s eve (they were friends again soon after); the time Mike regrettably had to let cops tackle an unruly customer; lots of first kisses seen from the ideal vantage point behind the bar. More often than not, though, Nelson’s imagined Bob’s after dark doesn’t exist. Themed Fridays, jello shots, birthday parties and shuffleboard makeout sessions far outnumber anything especially rowdy.
On one Friday afternoon, Bob’s is packed. The bartenders bicker over the 90s themed decorations for the night’s festivities; regulars order drafts of Bob’s Pilsner along the bar; a group of teachers take up four tables along the right wall, working up a tab long enough to provide a buffer between their school week and the weekend. Nelson walks in, and in one breath, orders his usual Bob’s Pilsner, yells about the placement of a disco ball, and greets a new guest. “People fall in love with Bob’s,” he says, “because we’re friendly. You have one beer, we help you out.”