What's Behind Square Hardware’s Storefront?
Don’t be fooled by Square Hardware’s utilitarian storefront. Sure, the glass windows are hawking hammers, saws and tape, but the lights are on at 2am. This is Astoria. Once you ring the bell, you’ll be escorted down to its underbelly, where a retrofuturist blend of bouncy leather chairs, typewriter menu font and men wearing period-appropriate regalia await behind the bar. This is The Last Word, a bar and lounge that opened on Ditmars Boulevard in August.
“I am very interested in this era,” said Padraig O’Brien, one of the co-owners who worked on The Last Word’s concept for a full year prior to opening. “I love all the variety and mixed opinions it offers, the music and the people. Deciding to open a speakeasy is more of a commitment to the now and how people perceive the cocktail.”
“We put the cocktail first and foremost.” O’Brien said. “It’s about tasting something new and possibly confusing, or having something old and classic that’s balanced to the point of ‘I must have another.’”
The semi-legal Prohibition aesthetic has gotten a lot of play in recent years. Nooks and crannies like Larry Lawrence and Hell Phone are fixtures of Brooklyn’s greater cocktail scene—the tucked-away back rooms of Angel’s Share and the enter-through-the-phone-booth facade of Please Don’t Tell epitomizes Midtown’s. Our communal displeasure with modernity and fascination with the lives our unmet great-great-grandparents led makes one wonder if there might actually be more speakeasies in America today than there were in the 1920s. The only difference is that when you ring the bell at Square Hardware now, you’re not risking a felony.
O’Brien’s start in the service industry was born of necessity, but before long his job became his passion and he went on to work at other reputable New York watering holes like Raines Law Room and Park Hyatt New York. Head bartender Ciaran Wiese, who doesn’t necessarily share O’Brien’s preoccupation with the burgundy, Coolidge epoch, grew up in a bar.
“I was the little kid drawing at the bar during staff meetings,” he said. “I started out busing tables, and worked my way up through every front-of-house role. I’ve been bartending since I was 21, and I’ve managed four bars.”
After a few years of serving tables in New York, Wiese moved back to Tucson where his family is, and met Padraig while working at a local bar. When O’Brien told Wiese his plans to open his first bar and asked Wiese to come work with him, he jumped at the opportunity, and moved back to New York last summer.
Together, they’ve created an eclectic, Old-World drink menu (with prices usually in the teens) that offers the exact tender loving care you’d expect from a couple of cocktail addicts. The Carmen Miranda blends a sweet cachaça with pineapple syrup, lime, orange blossom water and creme de banane, which O’Brien reaches for when he’s looking for something “deliciously refreshing and a little funky.” The Mumbai Daiquiri splashes dark rum, arrack, rose water and curry for a truly universal take on South Asian decadence. Their Gila River blends bourbon, Ancho Verde chili liqueur and (yep) mole bitters.
Wiese doesn’t look at their more adventurous drinks as stunts, and sums up his cocktail philosophy as “approachable to most everyone while still maintaining an identity” and “trying not to get too esoteric with ingredients.”
“I love the neighborhood vibe here,” adds O’Brien. “It’s nice to serve mostly New Yorkers who live here or grew up here. I’m learning a lot about all the changes and history that have happened throughout Queens and neighboring boroughs.”
Astoria feels like its own little world right now. It’s also holding on to an authentic down-home grittiness amidst the changing face of the rest of the city.