"WHAT ARE you doing for New Year's Eve?"
That's one pointed query. It ranks up there with "When are you getting married?" and "What kind of Asian are you?" on my personal list of questions I never, ever want to be asked.
When I was a small child, Dec. 31 always carried with it a certain new-beginning wonderment, delivered in the form of family togetherness. In the years bridging awkward teendom and young adulthood, the last day of the year was a gilded opportunity to (attempt to) extinguish hormonal wildfires, chug lousy beer and establish which liquors are the most physically detestable (hate you, Jager).
Now that we're fully grown, however, determining how, where and with whom to toast when the ball drops has become the ultimate scheduling chore. Your restaurant-obsessed friend, the one who always makes a big fuss about his own birthday, wants you to attend an opulent, truffle-laden prix-fixe dinner you can't afford. Your neighbor wants you to come to her party, but she's screening a retrospective iMovie documentary about her chubby-legged daughter learning to toddle that requires you to arrive no later than 7:15. Your roomie from college, who still drinks like he's an undergrad, wants to storm Old City, cut every blocklong line and drain every bottle of well vodka in a two-mile radius.
You, meanwhile, have no clue what to do, making staying on your couch and watching all those demented humans in Times Square freeze their phalanges off seem like a viable and attractive option.
Here's another: Hit the town, but do it by yourself.
Not everyone is comfortable with the concept of by-your-lonesome barhopping, and that's understandable. In addition to the social stigma associated with solo sipping - you're a sad, hapless drunk, and no one wants to be your friend! - some feel out of sorts surrounded by randoms, rather than intimate associates.
As much as I love to hang with friends, I find the pressure-free solitude of drinking alone to be a treat, one that could bring some rare calm and clarity to the night that often ends up being the most overcomplicated bust of the season.
Like any good drunkening, party-of-one or not, safety and strategy are of top concern. The most important considerations when cultivating a plan are location and familiarity. Pick an establishment you already frequent, especially one that's easily accessible to you by foot, cab or public transport. Bonus points if you have a good rapport with the staff.
One of those places for me is Grace Tavern. The bar, at 23rd Street and Grays Ferry Avenue, is not planning anything extravagant for the holiday, save for a pour of bubbly for the crowd. I spent a good chunk of a recent NYE here by myself and loved every second of it, enjoying my chats with fellow low-key revelers and my bourbon on the rocks.
Longtime Grace bartender Rees Brown, who has New Year's Eve off this year, is a vocal proponent of singular bar-stool occupation - as long as you put some thought into selecting the right place. "The thing about a neighborhood bar is, if you're doing it right, people should feel it's an extension of your living room," he said. "People should feel very comfortable walking in there and being by themselves."
When you're on your own, you often find yourself in fascinating conversations with strangers, like the girl I chatted with at Memphis Taproom whose job it is to open and read Mayor Nutter's mail; or Joe, a Vietnam vet I met at the defunct Butcher and the Brewer who works as a freelance composer for Quincy Jones and hasn't drunk gin in 40 years. (Hey, Joe!) But an equally influential source of ease is the staff, and how receptive they are to solo guests.
Jordan Stalsworth, who serves drinks at Oyster House, another favorite of mine for companion-less imbibing, is fond of seeking out a seat, ordering a drink and quietly perusing a book on her phone. (One recent selection: If I Did It by O.J. Simpson). But she makes it a point to go "to bars where I like the bartenders" for the occasional conversational break during lulls in service - long enough to catch up, but short enough not to throw a kink in her reading. "It's Company Lite," she said.
This repartee between drink pourer and drink sipper can make or break a bar trip. "That's one of the keys to bartending," said Grace's Brown. "Knowing when to engage people and when to leave people the hell alone."
If there's one big knock on my assertion that you spend New Year's Eve by yourself, it's this: Aren't you supposed to smooch the person you love the second the clock strikes midnight? I admit I have a skewed grasp on this tradition, as my girlfriend has worked in the restaurant industry for years, leaving me to my own wandering devices while she's on the clock. (I've always managed to swing by her work by 11:59.)
Just remember that it's a long night - it always seems longer than average, doesn't it? - and you don't have to dedicate the entirety of your evening to a single establishment. You can even hybridize the idea, skipping to and from bars where you have friends without being tied down by reservations, tickets or drink minimums.
And never worry about how you, intrepid solitary boozer, are perceived. "As far as drinking by yourself, especially in an urban setting - I think it's largely accepted," said Brown. "Wander out, have a beer and see what happens."