L to R: Mark Nayden and Richard Kennedy in the patio of Excelsior's new location with the original location's sign. | CHRISTOPHER MURRAY
BY CHRISTOPHER MURRAY | August 3 marked one year since Excelsior closed its doors on Park Slope’s Fifth Avenue between 6th and 7th Streets. The building that housed the bar was sold. That was just days after its co-owners, Mark Nayden and Richard Kennedy, got married, making their 23-year-old relationship official in the eyes of the state.
One year on, it’s 9 in the morning and Nayden, 50, and Kennedy, 52, both in camouflage shorts and paint-spattered t-shirts, are hard at work preparing for the August 15 opening of Excelsior in its new location, still on Fifth Avenue, but now between 15th and 16th Streets, the site of the former Pacheco Dry Cleaning between La Nacional Check Cashing and Shirly Nails, Inc.
After some delays, the new Excelsior is set for its soft opening to welcome neighbors, friends, and regulars into the new space, completely overhauled, but with touches of the former design layered in by Nayden, who is also a theatrical designer. A splashy opening party will follow after Labor Day, matching the anniversary celebrations that occurred at the former location marking the bar’s 1999 opening.
Though still dusty and filled with workers, it’s clear the new site will be something special and new for both the new neighbors and for returning patrons, who used to thinking of the old Excelsior as “an extension of their own living rooms,” Nayden said. “I don’t think Brooklyn has something like this right now. The place so flexible.”
No longer just a cozy neighborhood bar, the unique space, which was an Irish bar from the '20s through the '80s, will be a bar, a performance space, and “an entertainment destination.”
And that doesn’t sound like an exaggeration. The location came with an existing cabaret license, which means it allows dancing. It has a cozy nook with stools and small tables just in from the street, and then a long copper-topped bar in the middle section, a small lounge space behind that, with a small patio out back. Most unique is a glass-walled stairway that leads up to a mezzanine level designed as a jewel box performance space for live music, private parties, karaoke, and drag shows.
“I mean, that stairway was made for a drag queen,” Nayden said. “It has an entirely new color scheme and a lot of the design came out of the unusual space — it’s not a typical box having these four distinct areas.”
The second floor has its own bar, and will likely play host to performers like longtime friends drag queen Logan Hardcore and performer Susan Campanaro, with whom Kennedy and Nayden are writing a show based on her character, Lavinia Draper. Is the neighborhood ready for all this?
“We looked at a lot of different spaces,” Nayden said. ”We really wanted to be on this side of the expressway…We saw this space early last July and thought there was something about it that felt right.”
Noting how much Park Slope has continued to shift with gentrification, Nayden said that “this part of the Slope is a little ahead of where the other bar’s neighborhood was 15 years ago, and a lot of our clientele has moved within a five block radius” of the new location.
City Councilmember Brad Lander, who represents Park Slope, is a friend of Excelsior.
“It’s great that Excelsior is reopening,” Lander said. “It was a big loss when they closed. Excelsior has been such an important part of LGBT life in Park Slope and Brooklyn generally…The LGBT community and its bars are part of the diversity of our neighborhoods. Now, there is a strong LGBT community in the South Slope — it’s a diverse and welcoming community. I’m looking forward to having my first drink at the new Excelsior.”
There are four other successful bars within a few blocks, Sidecar, Black Horse Pub, Jake’s (formerly The Commissar), and Commonwealth, just two blocks down Fifth Avenue, owned and run by Ray Gish, a former bartender at both Carry Nation, (the forerunner of Ginger’s), and Excelsior in its early years. None are specifically gay bars, though all are LGBT-friendly.
“I’m excited for them and for the neighborhood,” Gish said about his friends Nayden and Kennedy. “I’m happy to have another place to drink.”
Invoking ear-splitting music and meat market scenes that some associate with gay bars, Gish laughed and said “I don’t really like gay bars, most of them, but I think this neighborhood needs a gay bar.”
Asked if there will be a glut of bars in the neighborhood or if he has concerns about competition, Gish dismissed such worries saying that a rising tide lifts all boats.
“Excelsior and Commonwealth share much of the same clientele, but there is more than enough business for all of us,” he said.
Lander said that he’ll miss Brooklyn’s Pride parade passing Excelsior and Ginger’s, a high point of the parade.
“But maybe the parade route should be changed next year to bend out towards the South Slope and Excelsior’s new location,” he said. “We’ll have to look into that.”