When it opened back in 2008, the Clover Club wasn’t looking for fame. But being a serious cocktail bar in still-sketchy Brooklyn, run by one of the first female head bartenders in the city, there wasn’t much chance it would fly under the radar. But when Julie Reiner opened the bar that would put Brooklyn on the cocktail map, she was just looking for her own personal Cheers.
“I loved the people in Brooklyn, and I’d been running the Flatiron Lounge for so long and dealing with the weekend crowds from all over the country — I was a little bit exhausted by that,” she says. “I was like, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have a bar that’s just all New Yorkers?’”
Ten years ago, that’s all you’d find in Carroll Gardens — if you could even get a cab to take you there. But the neighborhood, and very quickly the world, took notice of the bar, with its cozy 1890s-style main room of mahogany and tin, maroon leather banquettes and crystal chandeliers, and that Victorian vintage back room with a fireplace. These were not amenities Brooklyn was used to.
And then there was the extensive nine-section menu, where seasonal specials mingled with clever takes on iconic cocktails like the Improved Whiskey Cocktail — so it had to be right or else — as well as trend-setting items like bowls of Champagne punch and fresh fruits and vegetables, unheard of at the time for a bar. And none of it was pretentious: The original drink menu began with brief introduction that included the phrase, “we just want you to have a great time.”
To celebrate 10 years of reinventing what a neighborhood bar could be, the Clover Club is bringing back some of its early classics with a “yearbook” of its greatest hit cocktails launching June 18. Over 40 drinks by Reiner as well as some of the bar’s most famous alumni are featured, including the electric blue Rogue Wave (Reiner is a Hawaii native), the Gin Blossom (hot in Europe, eau de vie remains rare on American cocktail menus) and the famous Green Giant made with sugar snap peas — fresh produce is Reiner’s signature move.
So how did it all start? We asked Reiner to share her journey from the beaches of Hawaii to creating the bar that would put Brooklyn on the cocktail map.
A not-so-craft start
Reiner got her start in hospitality at 18 as a cocktail waitress in her native Hawaii, serving drinks more memorable for their color than flavor to tourists on the beach. While studying at Florida State University, she slung the watery beers and shots that college students want “to get totally obliterated.”
Getting serious on the West Coast
It wasn’t until she landed in California in 1997 that Reiner started making serious cocktails. “San Francisco at the time was using fresh juice and was very forward-thinking as far as the fresh, organic movement,” she recalls. Three years later, she moved to New York and started managing a little bar in the West Village called C3 where she “started taking a little more of a culinary approach to cocktails.”
The famous friend
Rainbow Room legend Dale DeGroff heard about Reiner’s fresh cocktails and experimental style and sought her out. “I didn’t really realize anybody else cared about high quality cocktails at the time,” she says. “I went from entertaining myself behind the bar to being on the front page of the New York Times.”
Her first taste of success
Seeing the demand for good cocktails led Reiner to open the Flatiron Lounge in 2003, then Pegu Club, both incredibly well-received at the time and continuing to be places other bartenders look to for both a solid grounding in the classics and innovation.
Taking a chance on Brooklyn
Then Reiner moved to Park Slope in 2006 and realized that if she wanted to find good cocktails, she was going to have to make them herself. “It was definitely a gamble. We opened in 2008, when the economy crashed and the political climate was terrible.”
But then came the accolades, most notably being named Best Cocktail Lounge just one year after opening by the Oscars of the bar world, Tales of the Cocktail. But it had something less tangible, too. “Bars, the spaces themselves, have a soul or energy to them,” she says. “It’s not something you can force upon a space, and the space that we’re in feels good.”
The real secret to her success
The Clover Club was born out of Reiner’s passion to create a comfortable local bar for her neighbors, but it’s endured through the work of the passionate people she’s attracted, including Ivy Mix of Leyenda, Giuseppe González of Milk & Honey, Jillian Vose of the Dead Rabbit.
Being a woman at a time when women weren’t even allowed behind the bar at some of the best places in town, including the revered speakeasy Employees Only. “I’ve surrounded myself with strong, talented women in the bar industry and because of the atmosphere that I put myself in, I don’t experience a lot of the things that a lot of women do experience,” she says.
Brooklyn is the new Manhattan
Reiner has plans, but there’s no going back to Manhattan. “[We] definitely want to open more places, and likely in Brooklyn, just because it’s definitely where we’re most comfortable,” says Reiner, who just traded Park Slope for another up-and-coming neighborhood, Red Hook. “Weeks go by and I don’t go to Manhattan, I love it.”