Looking for a new place to meet up with friends and unwind? Head uptown to Harlem and grab a seat at Mess Hall, the new neighborhood bar that’s serving up American craft beer, bourbon, and cocktails in the comforts of what feels like your own cozy living room. By Carly Petrone.
Warning: Once you step inside Mess Hall, the newly opened craft beer and bourbon bar, you may not want to leave. Harlem residents finally get their local watering hole to brag about thanks to owners Shanna Sharp, Aaron Baird, and Karen Paul. If the location sounds familiar (it’s located on Frederick Douglass Blvd. between 118th and 119th St.) that’s because it’s owned by the same people that started Double Dutch, the adorable coffee shop that’s busy brewing Counter Culture beans next door.
Walk through the doors and you’ll immediately notice the beautiful mosaic tiled floors and taxidermy that adorns the walls. This new kitchy space is small but it lends itself to meeting new friends or catching up with old ones. From its warm and cozy atmosphere to it’s extensive bourbon and American craft beer menu, this place is making its mark in Harlem. Did we mention that Bob Ross (everyone’s favorite “happy little clouds” painter) videos may sporadically be projected on the walls? Yep, it’s just that kind of place.
So, how did a classical bass player, a singer/songwriter/actress, and an art history major end up opening up a much needed bar in Harlem? CBSNewYork sat down with Shanna Sharp, Aaron Baird, and Karen Paul to talk about the neighborhood bar scene, what goes into making a good stiff drink, and how they ultimately ended up creating their new favorite hangout spot.
CBSNewYork: How did you come up with the concept of Mess Hall?
Karen Paul: As artists, we were struggling financially and we ended up working in real estate to make ends me. We got to know landlords in the area and started opening up our own businesses/coffee shops. We knew this space was opening and we always had this in mind. Shanna had performed at Chipped Cup before so we knew her that way.
Shanna Sharp: We came up with the name Mess Hall because we wanted to evoke a relaxed, welcoming atmosphere and a name that encouraged community and gathering. Mess hall we thought was the perfect choice.
CBSNewYork: What makes this place stand out from other bars & restaurants in the neighborhood?
Shanna Sharp: There are so many restaurants in the area that have a bar but our main focus is that it’s a bar. We wanted to make it our local bar. We found ourselves going downtown. We have all these great places to eat but not a place to just go and grab a drink with our friends. A lot of places are newer, slicker. We wanted to be warm, cozy, rustic – more like your living room so you feel comfortable.
CBSNewYork: Where did you get your décor?
All: Flea markets.
Aaron Baird: The Double Dutch and Chipped Cup vibe are more fem. We’re a little more masculine.
Karen Paul: We’re old timier. This is my vibe and Aaron’s vibe. We just like that. Everything in here just makes me happy. We went to thrift stores — Brimfield’s. We used a mix of vintage items and some of the lights are from School Electric.
Shanna Sharp: (Laughing) We shot a lot of deer. And poor Boris (referring to the Boar head hanging on the wall).
Karen Paul: We really wanted a kitchy feel. Old details like the paintings. We had Bob Ross videos playing on the projectors yesterday.
Aaron Baird: It’s good visual noise.
Karen Paul: It definitely adds a decorative element.
CBSNewYork: What type of bar bites will you be serving?
Karen Paul: Right now we really want to focus on the drinks. In the next month or two we’ll most likely be serving fun and tasty hot dogs. We don’t have a lot of space. We’re not a restaurant. We want to keep it a campy-woodsy aesthetic – hot dogs with awesome toppings. More like let’s serve one thing and then you pick your toppings. Maybe we’ll serve them in baskets. We’re still figuring it out. We want to keep it really low key – just good ingredients. We want to give people the option to snack on something but we’re not pretending to be a restaurant.
CBSNewYork: What are some of your favorite cocktails on the menu?
Shanna Sharp: We all have our different favorites.
Aaron Baird: Last night I liked The Campfire.
Shanna Sharp: See? It’s so good. It’s maple-infused bourbon with hickory smoke and housemade beef jerky as the garnish.
Aaron Baird: It makes you want to eat BBQ after, too.
Shanna Sharp: Maybe we should partner up with a BBQ place in this neighborhood! We also have a drink called The Garden Party, which is muddled basil with a house citrus vodka that we’ve made with some fresh squeezed lime and soda. That’s why we called it the garden party, because it feels like you’re being healthy.
Shanna Sharp: We hired a great staff. I’ve worked in bars for 15 years so of course I knew a lot of great bartenders. I called on all the best people I knew that I have worked with saying “please come uptown!” A lot of them now live up here. We’re going to seasonally change, too. Unfortunately, we just learned the hard way that it’s not lavender season – we’ve been chasing down lavender all across the city! We want the ingredients to be fresh so we’ll always switch it up. The bartenders are really smart and creative. Yes, we can always make you the old cocktails from the menu but we’re always adding to it, too.
Karen Paul: But our main focus is on craft beer and bourbons. We’re going to have bourbon tastings and flights available. We’re going to rotate the American craft beers seasonally. Local breweries are going to come in and do tastings to teach people in the neighborhood about beer.
Aaron Baird: All the beers are very regional right now – mostly in the New York area.
Shanna Sharp: We have Coney Island Brewery, Kelso, Ithaca…but we also have other states. Right now we have 10 drafts. I say, “drafts all the time.”
Aaron Baird: And we have two house wine selections available.
Shanna Sharp: We really wanted to keep it craft focused with the beer and with the liquors. We wanted to have something a little more unique and expand people’s palettes – give them something different to try.
CBSNewYork: Will Wi-Fi be available?
Aaron Baird: No Wi-Fi.
Shanna Sharp: We want our guests to actually meet people in the neighborhood. We want it to be a social place. But we do have USB phone chargers all around the bar so you can tell your friends where you are and tag yourself.
CBSNewYork: So, are you relying on the coffee shop customers to come over here when they’re done with their day?
Aaron Baird: Yeah, it’s morning versus night. (laughs) Maybe we’ll meet halfway and poor them some Baileys for their coffee.
CBSNewYork: When is your happy hour?
Shanna Sharp: Happy hour is 4 p.m. – 8 p.m., seven days a week. We have a can and shot special for $5 but our beers are between $6-$8. Bourbons can run from $8-$30 depending on what you’re going for.
CBSNewYork: How are the acoustics in here?
Shanna Sharp: Sound was really important to us. I hate when you’re at a bar and you have to scream at the person who’s only an inch away from you. We worked with our architects to make sure the sound absorbed into the panels so people aren’t screaming at each other. I still have a voice today so…
CBSNewYork: Will you have any live music here?
Shanna Sharp: I think when the weather gets warmer we might do something acoustic outside on the patio. We may do some things with DJ’s. Maybe we’ll take away some chairs and have a Mess Hall dance party. We’ll just listen to what the neighborhood wants.
CBSNewYork: Will you cater to the brunch crowd?
Aaron Baird: Maybe, we’d like to do something brunchy. We’ll see if we can do it.
Shanna Sharp: We want to do it right.
CBSNewYork: What do you want people to know about Mess Hall?
Shanna Sharp: We were talking about this last night. We finally have a place to hangout in the neighborhood. We made our own hangout! I grew up in bars in NYC. Being a performer, I was a bartender. I’ve seen so many downtown places close because of development. It’s cool that they’re not just coming in and knocking everything down in this area. We’re excited to bring that bar-neighborhood vibe back.
Don’t forget to check-in and follow Mess Hall on @MessHallHarlem or #MessHallHarlem. Hours are 4 p.m. – 2 a.m. Sunday – Thursday; 4 p.m. – 4 a.m. Friday & Saturday. Cash and credit accepted (no card minimum).