Diving It, Japan Style, at Decibel
October 11, 2010
NEW YORK, USA — For anyone who’s ever called rural no-man’s-land home, New York can seem like a foreign fantasy where cabbies act like stagecoach men and congested traffic like a celebratory parade. Even having lived in a city, New York always makes me feel a bit like a doe-eyed Dorothy, thrown out of my sheltered element and into that “I’m not in Kansas anymore” mentality. Yet the true magic of New York lies not just in its own pulsating personality, but in the many eclectic and strange venues that call it home. There are times when I’ll step through a threshold and think, “Nevermind Kansas. This isn’t even New York.”
So though I have never been to Japan (nor even, I am ashamed to admit, a real sake bar), I can imagine that if I did, it would look something like Decibel.
The no-frills, speakeasy-like sake venue is as seedy, sketchy, and shady as they come—an all-around grungy underground dive where it feels as though the Japanese mafia might exchange a few words (or blows). But for loyals and locals, this joint is a magnet for after-dark sipping and schmoozing.
It’s easy to miss the inconspicuous sign (shrouded by shrubbery) even if you know where you’re going, but it is the only beacon into this otherwise hidden bar. A narrow flight of steps leads from street level into the underground where, once past the heavily padlocked door, the close quarters and dank, musty air reflect its basement-level locale. Plunge forward past curtained alcoves to find the main room—a dim, mostly candle and paper lantern-lit space complete with darkened wood, shelves bursting with kitschy Japanese trinkets like Maneki Nekos (the waving, good luck kitties) and fans, brick walls crowded with jumbles of cartoons and graffiti, and wall patches filled with overlapping layers of Asian advertisements, posters, and drink labels.
Born in 1993, Sake Bar Decibel is a true New York original. Built in the cellar of an East Village building, it offers a menu boasting fine stock of nearly 100 sakes (hot and cold) varying as much in price as they do in type, along with little eats including sashimi plates, appetizers, and bar munchies. The shrimp and rice chips worked wonders with my light, fragrant Kaori, but no one comes here for the food (I heard the extent of preparation is of the nuking variety)—this bar is strictly for those who want to drink, to drink well, and to drink in abundance.
Customers can sit at cramped, rickety wooden chairs and tables, narrow booths, or even at the bar. At the 6:00pm opening, it was just us and a handful of trendy couples and Japanese businessmen nursing afterhours fatigue over a glass or three. I can only imagine what the place looks like during peak hours (elbow-rubbingly hot and hopping, packed with street-style hipsters and Village scenesters).
You will be hard-pressed to find a place as authentic as this. Though dark and dank, Decibel holds a certain picturesque charm that makes it irresistible to pass by. Which is easy, really—only in New York can Japan be a threshold away.
Read more about Sake Bar Decibel in Our New York Guide.