It was a New Year’s Eve like no other in recent memory. While last year and decades before it, New Yorkers celebrated with friends or spouses in toasty, spacious bars and restaurants to ring in the new and look wide-eyed into a brilliant future, there was a definite quiet at Sefton, an Upper East Side bar, on the last night of the coronavirus year. This stillness, this slight pallor on the evening that was perhaps last seen on 9/11 and during the Great Depression before then, did not stop the young staff and mixed-age patrons of the one-year-old Sefton from wearing the customary regalia: bronze fedoras, fuzzy necklaces, big glasses that spelled out the year ahead, 2021. First Avenue and 73rd Street may have been more hopping in the past, with lights of the many watering holes and pizza parlors staying on through the wee hours of the morning, but this is New York and the merriment would continue.
Standing at a round tabletop beside a lone Christmas tree on the sidewalk as his customers drank and ate in an elegant wood house on the street, Sefton co-owner Joe Cremin spoke about the origins of his bar. “The unit was vacant for probably about a year and a half, and we wanted to do something a little different. There was an Irish sports bar that was here previously, and we just wanted to do something a little bit classy, not too upscale that it would frighten people off, but with a good selection of craft beer and quality cocktails,” he said in a gentle Irish brogue.
A native of Cork, Ireland, Cremin has been in the hospitality industry since he was fifteen. Working in his home country for about ten years, he then came to New York where he spent another decade in the business and eventually linked up with Tim Hansbery, a fellow Irishman from Galway and the other owner of Sefton. Cremin and Hansbery, both late-thirties/early-forties men of an almost different era, had always wanted to open up their own bar and, with the right rent and the proper location, the plan finally came to fruition last year.
Offering ten draft beers on tap, seventeen bottled beers, plenty of cocktails and such food items as truffle French fries and beef lasagna, Sefton has been largely successful, even as New York battled the disease of a lifetime. To date, 37,557 New Yorkers and 1.82 million people across the globe have died from coronavirus. That includes the hospital physician, the Broadway actor, the family accountant, as well as so many others whose rich, precious lives belie more than mere statistics.
There has also been a kind of business freeze-over throughout the city. Just down the block from Sefton, Finnegan’s Wake, the Upper East Side mainstay and beloved institution, has temporarily closed its doors, and the legendary comedy club, Dangerfield’s, along with cherished downtown music venue, Jazz Standard, have permanently shut down. Where there were once glittering marquees and trumpet-boomed jazz clubs, there are now “for rent” signs and darkened windows. While only a year ago, Yorktown bustled with the talk of all-night eateries, the near silence of the city has been almost aching.
Cremin knows this all too well. “We opened in October of 2019 and we closed down in March of 2020 so a lot of the stuff that we were hoping to do kind of got put on pause,” he said. He and Hansbery wanted to do brunch seven days a week, for instance, but the new strictures enforced by the city couldn’t allow for that. In the months that followed, he, like many proprietors throughout the city, offered to-go cocktails, a service that customers relished, but often the cold winter weather, as well as fear of catching the virus deterred individuals from venturing outside.
There were, in fact, many nights when the wood-paneled, gold-lined Sefton stood eerily empty, with barely a soul on the street. The owner does admit that he endured a significant loss in business in the early COVID days, but by the time spring came around, more neighborhood residents flocked to the bar and, as rock music blared from speakers outside, there was practically a sense of liberation in the air. New challenges arose, though, as Cremin and his staff had to make sure people stood six feet apart per city protocol and didn’t gather en masse. Still, he says as passersby send him well wishes, “The people up around here are great, very warm,” going on to state that he believes the establishment has been a welcome addition to the neighborhood.
Emblazoned on the front door of Sefton is a horse, glowing, as if lit from within. Not only is it the namesake of the bar, a thoroughbred from Ireland that was badly injured in a series of bombings in the 1980s and then revived, but it is the city in miniature: the undying stallion that will charge forth into the new year.
“We opened in October of 2019 and we closed down in March of 2020 so a lot of the stuff that we were hoping to do kind of got put on pause.” Sefton co-owner Joe Cremin