Although it sounds more like a yoga position than commentary on a lively East Village bar, my experience at The Sunburnt Cow (137 Avenue C) this Saturday left me reflecting on the value of customer service in a city where the pool of customers is seemingly bottomless.
Our group was large – 13 for dinner – with a few more meeting up later for drinks in celebration of my girlfriend’s birthday. The Sunburnt Cow stood out in our choices of a location because of the party space, cheap food and a $20 all you can drink for two hours special. It’s a funky place with one full wall of exposed brick, a projection screen video playing an assortment of clips behind the bar and of course, red cow-print bar stools and cow-print pillows lining the lounge section. Sealing the deal for us – it was named by New York Magazine in a piece on the Top 5 Bars for Birthdays.
Although our 9:00 reservation had been changed to 9:30 by the bar two days before, everyone in our young and energetic party accepted the time as New York normal. We waited outside and chit chatted for a bit, content that we’d be seated soon. Instead, 9:45 rolled around and the group occupying our table hadn’t even ordered desert. We waited.
Playing the in-control boyfriend role, I went inside to either get a time when we would be seated or to tell the manager that we were leaving to get a few slices across the street. I made sure to hand off my party bag of Crumbs cupcakes to a friend who stayed outside before heading in. You simply can’t argue with someone while holding a bag full of rainbow sprinkle cupcakes.
My quest for answers brought me to Heathe, the owner of The Sunburnt Cow and Bondi Road, a beach-themed bar/eatery at 153 Rivington. He’s had the place for six years and it would quickly become apparent why the Sunburnt Cow has lasted in a time when many bars and independent restaurants have had to close up shop. With a growling stomach I reminded Heathe of our reservation and that I had twelve people outside whose sole purpose for the evening was to eat and drink in his bar.
“You’re all waiting outside?” he asked in a thick Australian accent. (The bar serves a few Australian brews like Cooper’s and Toohey’s.)
I told him about the 45 minute wait, the birthday and a litany of other concerns.
“Well, hell mate,” he said, “bring everyone inside for a round of drinks on me. Whatever you want. That table’s just not budging right now. I’m really sorry.”
I thanked him, still trying not to appear a pushover, but in my mind I was thinking hmm, that was actually pretty nice of him. All things being equal, it was more than frustrating that the group in front of us was carrying on well into our time, but what could the bar do at this point? Make them leave?
Without hesitation, the bartender gave us whatever we wanted to drink. The cold booze was helping to smooth things over, but the party in front of us still showed no signs of leaving. They hadn’t even gotten the bill. Every now and then, Heathe would come by in a rush, apologizing and expressing his hopes for the table to open up. “Soon, friends. Soon!” he’d say. Ten more minutes went by and he came by with a suggestion.
“How about some calamari and appetizers at the bar on me?”
As our drinks dried out the scramble for food began. Four bowls of calamari and three sundae glasses loaded with what they call the Classic Aussie Shrimp Cocktail lined the bar. The calamari was good, crispy, what I’d expect. The shrimp cocktail was more like a shrimp slaw than a cocktail, with a hint of lime juice to cut through the mayo. I’m guessing that’s the “Aussie” style.
The table didn’t open up until 10:30. When it did, Heathe or a welcoming waitress was by every few minutes or so to make sure that we had everything we needed. Sometimes we didn’t – an order taking longer than hoped for, a missing drink – but overall the servers were trying their best amidst a bar packed to the doors and a kitchen staff who should have been washing dishes at this point in the night instead of plating them.
We were offered the table for the remainder of the night and even though we decided to meet up with other friends at another bar, we could have just as easily stayed and drank for the rest of the night for $20. As my girlfriend and I were walking out Heathe stopped us to share a birthday shot of blended fruit juice and vodka. It was a nice way to cap off the visit and a nice touch by a guy who, frankly, couldn’t have done more to help us have a great time.
Would I go back? Yeah. We did later that night for more drinks. I’d hesitate to go again with such a large party for dinner unless we could secure an earlier reservation. Ten o’clock is simply too late to eat at a place where the bar is the main attraction. But maybe it was just a tough night and maybe it would have been different had we been able to reserve the spacious, full-service back room. After all, it was a fun atmosphere and everything is VERY reasonably priced. If you’re a day drinker, The Sunburnt Cow offers a popular brunch menu, where $18 gets you everything, including all-you-can-drink Moo Mosas, Moo Marys and Fosters.
Overall, in a city where smugness is chic, it is beyond refreshing to find people like Heathe and his staff bending over backwards to see to it that their patrons are satisfied. Their unflinching optimism, inclusivity and Aussie hospitality help to make a bad situation bearable and a good night great.