“When I was a kid, maybe 10 years old,” reminisces Handsome Dick Manitoba, “my father took me downtown to Jack Dempsey’s. It took up a whole block on Broadway, and Jack waved to us through the window. Right then, I knew: That’s what I want to do with my life.” En route to fulfilling his childhood fantasy, Manitoba (then known as Richard Blum) got a little sidetracked, joining Bronx proto-punks the Dictators in the mid-seventies, first as the band’s roadie, then as its rasping, wiseacre lead singer. “I thought I’d make a million bucks, and then open my bar,” he cracks. “Of course, I didn’t.” That’s an understatement: In 1978, after four years and three albums, the seminal, if determinedly low-brow (and even lower-selling), Dics broke up, leaving Manitoba barless and bandless.
During the next two decades, the singer drove a cab, dabbled in heavy metal (with a new band, Manitoba’s Wild Kingdom), and, most recently, tended bar at 2A. A few months ago, though, Manitoba partnered with his bosses from the latter gig, buying a stake in the Avenue B Social Club and revamping it as Manitoba’s. “I want it to feel like a second home to my customers,” he says. To that end, Manitoba added personal touches like dark oak paneling and warm, recessed lighting, Dictators CDs on the jukebox, an autographed Dion album cover, and photos of pro-wrestling legends like Killer Kowalski. He also transformed the basement into the ultra-atmospheric “Manitoba’s Makeout Lounge,” complete with a mural of twenties-style flappers and red Chinese lanterns.
Manitoba, who recently turned 45 (and who rejoined the Dictators in 1995), spends three nights a week presiding over his bar with proprietary charm. “This place is my baby,” he says at the taps – a surprisingly unscuzzy selection running from Brooklyn Lager to Boddingtons.
Right now, the closest the singer comes to serving food is the sack of dried pigs’ ears he keeps behind the bar – treats for neighborhood dogs – but Manitoba and his partners are at work on a bistro, tentatively named the Five Points Bar & Grill (“after the toughest neighborhood anywhere, ever; it still sounds a little classy, though”), that’s under construction and set to open this month. Located on East 10th Street between Third and Fourth Avenues (the same block as yuppie brunch fave Danal), the 1,400-square-foot restaurant looks to be a sort of East Side Florent – but hold the drag-queen waiters and fluorescent lights – with extra tattoos and leather and mood-setting wood stain. “It’s gonna be a classic meat-and-potatoes menu,” he says. “Not pretentious, but not cheap, either. You know, when it’s two or three in the morning, and you want a bite to eat, but you don’t want to go to the Greek diner? Rockers sometimes like a nice meal, too, you know.”