Made on 8th Street - Don Borelli and the Arts & Crafts Beer Parlor / by William Lewis

For Arts & Crafts Beer Parlor co-owner, Don Borelli, bad guys and bad beer have two things in common, the world is not big enough for either, let alone both. So, he made it his life’s mission to deal with both!

After twenty-five years as an FBI agent hunting down international criminals, terrorists and other (redacted!) individuals across the U.S. and Middle East, then security consulting; it was time for some good guys, time for something different, “less hostility, more hospitality”, Don explained. It was time to open a craft beer bar!

Don Borelli, co-owner of the Arts & Crafts Beer Parlor. Photo; Julie Brown Photograpghy.

Don Borelli, co-owner of the Arts & Crafts Beer Parlor. Photo; Julie Brown Photograpghy.

Every great agent needs a partner…Don needed his Starsky to Hutch, his Cagney to Lacey, his Mulder to Scully, Don needed his sidekick to open a bar! Cue the effervescent, sparkling Robert “Frenchy” La France, a Broadway actor, opera singer, and art collector, with a strong background in hospitality. If they were a brain, Robert is the creative artistic right side, Don is the logical pragmatic left side, their match was perfect.

Don and Robert began searching locations for their bar; coincidentally they knew the investors behind the “Growler Station” at 26 West 8th Street, a craft beer store to fill take home growlers. Don and Robert quickly realized the location would be perfect, given so much of the infrastructure needed for a bar was already in place, most importantly beer lines, which Don takes time to describe as a “race track of beer around the building”. They soon took over the lease, received the keys and happily became the lessees of a space that would become their dream craft beer bar.

All they needed now was a concept! Don, the logical left side of the “Don and Robert brain” had a burst of right sided creativity! It should not be just another bar; it had to be different and had to reflect the eclecticism of its vibrant, historic and artistic neighborhood. With that in mind, the “Arts & Crafts Beer Parlor” was born.

Just as the Arts & Crafts movement was a cultural revolt against the ideals of industrialization at the turn of last century, the bar would be a revolt against the typical New York City Sports bar. Instead, it would be a cultural center, an extension of your living room (without the television), a space to appeal to beer lovers, art lovers, the residents, workers and visitors of one of New York City’s most vibrant neighborhoods.

At every touchpoint the principles of the Arts & Crafts movement influences the bars design. The distinctive logo carries a font called “Art & Craft”; the wallpaper is the distinctive Rabony pattern. There is ornate wood paneling, floors and fire surrounds, set beneath classic brass light fittings, which complete a design concept paying homage to arts and crafts movement, and the neighborhoods artistic history.

Unsurprisingly, a bar that upends the norms of New York bars attracts a diverse group of drinkers; Don describes his guests as “very eclectic”. There are New York University professors and students, artists from the neighboring New York Studio School of Drawing Painting and Sculpture, musicians from Eighth Street’s Electric Lady Studios. There are also craft beer aficionados and lively locals who regale savvy tourists and out of towners who are off the beaten tourist path.

Such a diverse range of customers, all knowledgeable about craft beer, means the beer sourcing and curation is critical to offering a diverse menu of style and taste. At any given time, Don offers on-tap, twenty-four rotating seasonal choices, along with dozens of canned options, including cider. To achieve this Don has created a small team of loyal highly knowledgeable staff who share his burning passion for craft beer. They help with sourcing; many have personal connections to the local microbreweries featured on tap. Popular small batch guest beers can often sell out in under a day!

For Don his team’s role is much more than just pouring beer; they take time to educate customers, helping guests make the right choices while letting them discover new tastes and styles. Don stressed one thing they are not, “beer snobs”. They sell Bud Light, non-alcoholic beers and wine. Most importantly, Don’s team know the art of great conversation, it is impossible to leave without being on first name terms and having new friends!

Don draws immense gratitude and job satisfaction from the many compliments he receives about his staff and beer selection, contrasting this with his former life he said, “In the security industry I was selling expertise, a kind of insurance people never wanted…people always haggled then grudgingly paid in cash. Here the transaction is much happier; people gladly pay $7 for a great beer they want, and a great time.

Alongside the rotating beers are the rotating art exhibits, adding color and character to the bar, reflective of the bar’s vibrant artistic neighborhood. During our conversation, the energetic and eclectic canvases of neighboring artist, fashion designer and small business owner, Storm Ritter, surrounded us. Don’s partner (and right brain), Robert curates the art exhibits, which range from the classical to abstract, photography to collage and everything in between. The artists featured are mostly local; with dedicated exhibit launch parties, the bar provides a valuable platform for artists to gain exposure. Over the years many canvases have sold, and art commissions been taken from Don and Roberts walls.

In the spirit of supporting local artists and microbreweries, Don has always been a passionate voice and advocate for the health and wellbeing of 8th Street and the local neighborhood. He’s made a real difference to the neighborhood by volunteering many hours to the local community board, attending local retail association meetings and making sure his business is a proactive community partner.

In a time of rising rents, vacant stores and a fiercely competitive trading environment he muses that the “history of 8th Street is still being written”. Like many business owners on the street, he is well aware of the challenges that “need to be overcome” including sidewalk and parking restrictions, and shuttered storefronts. Yet for Don the street still “feels edgy” and “different in a good way”, setting the block apart from the homogeneity that has befallen the fate of many other city streets. For Don, this is a strength for all businesses to capitalize on, to help journey through an uncertain future. One thing is for certain, as a preeminent community advocate; Don will be leading that journey.

As our time with Don came to a close we were still curious about three things…is running a bar harder than chasing terrorists? What does Don drink, and does Beckett, his three-year-old black Labrador actually run the place?

Yes, terrorists are easier to handle than repairing broken equipment on a holiday weekend. You will most likely find Don pouring himself a pale ale or IPA, and when it is really cold, a stout or porter. And Beckett…well the only thing he works are the customers. Going “shark down” for belly rubs; scouting for beer pretzel scraps and curling up by the cozy fire fill his busy days.

Next time you are in the neighborhood, take a few moments to visit Don and his team, have a few beers and experience the incredible space they have created. It is a true gem, not just for the neighborhood but New York City, a place to escape the city’s endless motion, enjoy real warmth, conversation and great beer.

Reflecting on Dons words, “the history of 8th Street is still being written”, we cannot help but feel 8th street is very lucky to have Don and his team as such a significant and popular part of that unfolding history. To be continued.