NYC's New Subterranean Bar, The Lø
Creative Director Grace Lee's cocktail haven beneath a familiar address
Chances are most food- and drink-oriented New Yorkers will recognize the address 19 Kenmare. Until recently it held Ken & Cook on its top floor and, for a while, nightlife destination Lil' Charlie's existed below. Prior to that, Travertine occupied the space. Both restaurants were alluring upon open and maintained generally favorable reputations and quality food offerings throughout their runs. As is prone to happen in an incredibly competitive culinary scene, however, neither weathered the test of time. Occupying the space now, Grace Lee and Camille Becerra's De Maria will open its doors shortly. Underneath, however, one will find The Lø, soon to "officially" open to the public at the same time frame as De Maria. From craft cocktails and green satin banquettes to board games and Oaxacan small bites, it's a new 50-person subterranean lounge with an emphasis on quality and atmosphere. Countertop candles and the back bar provide the most light, wooden paneling defines the walls and a corner nook plays host to an array of performances, including live music. We spoke with The Lø creative director Grace Lee, Becerra's partner in the upstairs restaurant (who also happens to be a music industry veteran) on what she did to make the space as charming as it feels.
Lee's initial motivation—in the project as a whole—was reinvention and a return to self. The restaurant world wasn't her first stop, however. "Toward the end of 2015, I wanted to resurrect," she explains to CH. "I went through a tragic year in which I lost family, close friends, and even myself. I felt I needed to listen to my soul and exile myself from my comfort. I packed one suitcase, one backpack, my guitar, and my typewriter, and fled to the jungles of Maderas, Nicaragua. That year, while staying at a friend’s resort, I met my soulmate, Nikki Brand, who is the former Creative Director of Maderas Village and my current partner in love. We bonded over our passion for the arts and how we felt humanity was disconnected from beauty. She inspired me to reach my highest again and be a new sculpture. I returned to the States a month later, with calluses all over my feet and mosquito bite scars over my body. I felt free, truly happy, and pure."
While in Maderas, Lee befriended Kelly Russ, the resident Energy-Healer. Kelly introduced her to her best friend's boyfriend—and Lee's soon to be business partner—Sab Sharma, the owner of formerly Ken & Cook. Upon her return, "Sab reached out to me for creative direction and assistance in his business, and the whistle of carpe diem came and I became his new partner. I re-branded the entire property and The Lø became a speakeasy cocktail lounge, getting rid of the curse of the downstairs being this ghostly space of a nightclub." Lee maintains her love of music first, but notes, "I consider food and liquor art. And art is expression. I’m feeding the masses, I’m social-experimenting."
"The Lø is obviously shaped around me being an artist," she continues. This applies to both the programming—which will also feature art exhibitions, poetry and film screenings—and the decor, which is an extension of Lil' Charlie's vibes. "The satin emerald banquettes wrapped around the room were chosen because the emerald color in Ancient Egypt means 'eternal life' and also signifies the God of Wisdom. Our barware is all copper and gold—when copper rusts it dies into green—which is a sibling of emerald. I hope to point out the circle of life. Gold represents a motto I live by—stay gold forever."
Of course, the last few years have revealed a true obsession with speakeasies in NYC—and in most other cities. The Lø isn't a traditional speakeasy hidden behind an unmarked door or optical illusion. It's certainly not a nightclub. And thankfully, there is no doorman. When asked about this interspace—and the hidden but present sensation one feels upon entrance—Lee addresses the clientele. "The Lø is for the grown-ups, the tidy, the mature, the classy yet charismatic person," she begins. And while she envisions everyone from architects to businessmen present, she, "Obviously [sees] the souls of musicians, artists, and creatives coming to lounge. Women are always guaranteed entry, the whole perspective of The Lø is to have an equal tender. I’m not really a fan of cocktail lounges that appeal to the mustached, suspender-wearing, masculine pretentious customer. This is The Lø, where you are the show."
Taking a look at the venue's name and mantra—"A Show of Wonder, A Show of Surprise"—offers the last bit of insight necessary before entering. "The Lø etymology literally means 'a show of wonder, a show of surprise, an action to call onto something' and therefore the mantra is inspired by the ethos of it’s true meaning." In a more literal sense, she says the name "also triggered the idea of a speakeasy because the venue is literally underneath, a den, a subterranean location. You’re coming from the surface (high) to downstairs (low)." Anchored by a communal table, and with programming set to vary from night to night, this is an intimate destination that's sure to impress.
Portrait by BFA, all other images by David Graver