The story of Coyote Ugly—the East Village bar, not the 22%-liked Piper Perabo vehicle—is that of Liliana Lovell, (aka Lil), a scrappy young bartender who turned down a lucrative Wall Street apprenticeship to devote more time to her much more lucrative nighttime job of slinging drinks. Cutting her teeth at the now-defunct Village Idiot, she learned that a little hip wiggling and whiskey swigging went a long way and trained a staff of hot young things to do the same. But it wasn't all come-hither winks and pandering flirtations for these ladies. The key to Lovell's success lay in her eff-you attitude, quick wit and ability to drink most of her clientele under the table.
In 1993 she opened her own place, hiring a band of smart, sexy girls with the same bleed-the-customer-dry approach to tending bar she had. And it seems to have paid off: She sold the rights to the movie based on the bar in the late 1990s and has since franchised the business, which now has locations in Las Vegas, New Orleans, Tampa, San Antonio and as far as Moscow.
The original Coyote Ugly bar in New York's East Village recently got a face-lift, so we decided to pay a visit. Or maybe we just wanted an excuse to peek into the famously raunchy bar, with its hot-sassy staff and countertop stomping, to see if it was still relevant in this era of craft beer and elderflower cocktails. Who could be patronizing a kitschy saloon that inspired a campy movie and mini-chain of seedy bars? Besides curious nightlife writers, that is.
Digs: Modeled on the quintessential dive bar, the dimly lit interior wouldn't be much to look at were it not for the eye-catching accoutrements hanging from the walls and ceiling—namely, American flags, bumper stickers and no shortage of ladies' underthings. The bar is equipped with sturdy poles the bartenders-slash-dancers can swing from during their routines. They were once plastered with old bras, but a recent DOH-prompted face-lift cleared out the arsenal, forcing its staff to solicit new additions to the collection. The makeover wasn't much more than a paint job and cleanup to bring the place up to code, but unfortunately for the ladies, it included a coat of a varnish on the bar, which could lead to a spill—and not the liquid kind.
Crowd: As it turns out, the bar is as popular as ever. And not just on a Friday night with throngs of tourists and horny twentysomethings. On weekday afternoons, you can find the after-work set, as well as unaccompanied men, slamming two-for-one happy-hour shots with the bartender. The latter group is the first to roll in, eager to capitalize on the precious hour or so they have the lovely lady behind the bar to themselves. Things get rowdy—and bar-thumpingly messy—not long after the workday ends.
Staff: You get a loud and heartfelt woooooh! upon entering the bar, even if you're the first one there. It's an introduction to what you're in for: essentially, a bra-whirling, booze-soaked party. Get there early, before the first dance, and you'll catch the bartender gearing herself up for the night, breaking into the odd gyration like a spasm until the moment everyone is waiting for, when she jumps up on the bar. The staff is skilled, swinging from one pole to the next, sometimes galloping across the bar at top speed, never spilling a glass. The rules are clear: no pansy drinks, no water; everyone tips (well) and everyone parties.
Drinks: Wild Turkey was Ms. Lovell's drink of choice and is still a popular order at the bar, but most people order bottled or canned beer or well drinks. The bartender might even warn you outright that the beer on tap is known to spoil and suggest you opt for something else. Happy hour is two-for-one, across the board, which makes $2 PBRs about as cheap a drink as you'll find in the city.
Music: Let's be clear here: The music is loud. So loud, at times, that you can't hear yourself think, much less carry on a conversation. Not to worry. Whatever needs to be said on an evening at Coyote Ugly can surely be communicated with a high-five or bra flashing. The abusive decibel level, along with the aggressive sales approach, is what makes the bar so successful. It insists you have fun—or, at least, the beer-commercial version of fun. You will get wasted, you will woot, you will tip heavily and sing along, and, if you're a woman, you are also pretty likely to dance on the bar. You may or may not remove and donate your bra.
Bottom line: Coyote Ugly often gets billed a tourist trap, but the original location attracts plenty of locals. Sure, it's tacky and seedy, but it certainly offers a more authentic East Village experience than the frattier 13th Step or Superdive (we're sure, like a horror-movie villain, it will return). The dirty-dancing bartenders and rowdy, drunken crowd aren't exactly edgy, no matter how much its founder preaches self-empowerment. But as the city's bar scene grows up, you might find yourself longing for the trashy bars of your youth. And even if you aren't, Coyote Ugly more or less forces you to surrender to it. It shoves the good times down your throat, gets you drunk before you can sensibly decline and before you know it, your bra is hanging from the ceiling.
Photo by Noah Fecks