The first time I walked into Tip Top Bar and Grill, I was looking for a venue for a stand-up comedy show. I’d been looking at bars all over Brooklyn for weeks, talking to bartenders who gave me email addresses where I’d send polite notes that were met with no response.
So when I walked into Tip Top, I wasn’t expecting much, but I immediately recognized this bar was different from all the others. A friend had told me they had a great side room, so the first thing I did was poke my head in there. I was pleasantly surprised to find a room decorated in streamers and Happy Birthday signs. It reminded me of my grandparents’ basement, which my grandmother would cover with festive decorations before serving Christmas Eve dinner on card tables draped in plastic tablecloths.
I walked back into the bar, where I noticed family photos taped to the wall behind the kitchen and a collage of the Obama family underneath the bar. There were several people sitting around, most of whom looked like regulars who’d lived in the neighborhood a long time. When I asked the bartender if I could speak to someone about hosting an event there, she pointed to an elderly woman perched on a chair by the door. I walked over to the woman, who I now know as Irene, and introduced myself. I told her I was a stand-up comedian looking to start a monthly show, and that I’d love to do it in her bar. She just nodded and said, “OK.” I couldn’t believe it was that easy, but after running a show there for three years, I know a friendly hello is all it takes to be welcomed into Tip Top.
Tip Top welcomes guests like they’re family because it is a family-run business. Linda Greer tells me her father Walter “Junior” Alston opened Tip Top as a social club for men in the neighborhood about 40 years ago. “It was just a hangout for the neighborhood men,” Linda says. “They had two pool tables in here. And they would bring their drinks in and drink and, you know. It was like a little hangout spot.”
Walter and his wife Irene (known to relatives and bar regulars as Corinne) turned it into an official bar in 2001, when the city threatened to shut down the club. Since Walter passed away three years ago, Irene has been running the place with some help from her daughters Linda and Betty, who both bartend a couple of nights a week. Even Linda’s daughter shows up to tend bar on occasion. “She pretty much runs it,” Linda says of her mother. “I’m just here.”
Though she has a warm, inviting presence, Irene is a woman of few words, and in fact every time I asked to interview her she gave me a shy smile and repeated a refrain I’ve heard often over the past few years: “Talk to Linda.”
According to Linda, her father bought the building that Tip Top is located in (and where Irene still lives) in the 70s. Before he turned it into a social club, Tip Top was a supermarket. Linda has lived in the neighborhood since she was four years old, and she says she’s seen it change with the times. “I would say probably for the better. Some people would have other opinions. I would say that most of the people that have moved out of the neighborhood and sold their houses, it’s because they have retired, and they were originally from the South, just like my dad was.”
Though the effects of neighborhood changes remain an ongoing conversation in areas like Bedford-Stuyvesant, Linda says she doesn’t know anybody who was pushed out. “All the ones that I know of pretty much sold their houses for 10 times what they bought it for and they now live in the South.” She continues, “They were just ready to leave. And then a lot of people don’t realize, some of the people still own the houses, they just don’t live here anymore.”
Still, she has noticed the changing demographics and challenges stemming from Bed-Stuy’s revitalization. While business has gotten better over the years, she says that “The bar business is really hard now because there’s so many. This neighborhood, every time we turn around now, there’s a bar. And our young people, they love to bar hop. They’re not dedicated to anything anymore,” she says with a laugh.
Though that’s certainly true, Tip Top stands out from the crowd. There are few bars in Bed-Stuy where you can get a $5 beer and shot, or where you can eat free chicken wings every Thursday night. These days, Tip Top is open Wednesday-Sunday, and while they have food every night (including the aforementioned free snacks on Thursdays), the kitchen is only open on Fridays and Saturdays.
Longtime customers still drop in on Wednesdays and sometimes Thursdays, but Linda says the majority of Tip Top’s customers are new — many of them young people who move into the neighborhood for a year or two before leaving the city. A lot of them, though, come back to visit. “We have a guy that actually comes back every year from California to have his birthday party. Every year, he’s here,” she laughs. According to Linda, the reason so may people come back to Tip Top is because “My mother treats everybody like they’re her kids.”
For three years now, I’ve certainly felt like part of the Tip Top family. The first Thursday of every month, I walk in knowing I’ll be greeted warmly. I say hi to Linda and Irene, who always smiles and shouts, “Hey baby!” then go into the side room to set up the stage and chairs. Audience members start filtering in — either regulars happy to be back or first-timers amazed that a place like Tip Top still exists in New York City. After the show, people usually hang around, either in the bar or on the back patio, feeling like they’re unwinding at a relative’s house after a big party.
When I ask Linda what, exactly, makes Tip Top so special, she says, “We treat everyone equally. We had a gay couple come in here, two guys. And they told me they weren’t sure they were going to be welcomed, that people were going to mess with them or whatever. They wanted to be able to go to a straight bar and not always have to go to a gay bar. I said we don’t allow that in here. When you come in here, nobody’s allowed to mess with anybody. You come in here, you have a good time,” she pauses, then adds with a laugh, “They stayed forever.”
That’s the kind of place Tip Top is — one where you stop in for an early drink and end up spending your entire night. “Everybody’s welcome,” Linda says, before wandering over to serve a customer. “As long as you behave,” she adds, erupting into laughter once again.