It seems like yesterday (but it was actually November 2, 2006) that twenty-or-so members of the New York City Celiac Disease Meetup Group gathered at Heather's (hidden away at 506 E. 13th Street between Avenues A and B) and enjoyed the rare pleasure of ordering gluten-free beer and cider at an honest-to-goodness bar. At the time, Heather's was the only bar in the entire city to offer such choices (though a few restaurants also obliged in their own ways). Today, I believe that no other city bar is more celiac-friendly.
The sad thing is that Heather's Bar seems to be having some trouble. Yesterday's New York Times included an article (cited in today's Gothamist) that describes a conflict between bar owner Heather Millstone and her upstairs neighbors and some other community members.
One of the problems is that Millstone's upstairs neighbors don't like the noise and vibrations emanating from the small bar. That's a very understandable complaint, but Millstone deserves credit for investing in soundproofing and otherwise trying to maintain her business and make good her investment without disturbing her neighbors, longtime residents who (it seems from the article) might not even have tried using floor coverings to muffle the sound--a typical requirement of many New York City leases. I'd like to think that there is room for sensible arbitration here.
Another problem might be a lack of understanding of Community Board 3 toward the plight of people on medical gluten-free diets. Judging from the article, it seems that Millstone successfully made the case with the State Liquor Authority that providing gluten-free imbibements constituted a "public benefit" but that leaders of Community Board 3 reject that judgment and plan to mount a challenge against it.
From the article:
"Bars have taken a heavy toll on the community,” said Alexandra Militano, chairwoman of the subcommittee of Community Board 3 that oversees applications for liquor, beer and wine licenses in the bustling East Village and Lower East Side. “We are oversaturated. A lot of residents in this community are subjected to really horrible conditions....I'm concerned that Community Board 3 may be underestimating the rarity as well as the "public benefit" of a Heather's, perhaps out of a lack of appreciation of celiac disease. Even though it is estimated that 1% of the population has celiac disease, almost no bars or restaurants in all of New York City offer a single gluten-free beer. That makes Heather's a very special attraction, one of the only commercial establishments in New York City where the gluten-free can enjoy a beer. That's why I specified Heather's as a recommended destination--and the only recommended bar--in my travel tips for last year's International Celiac Symposium. And that's why I made a 30-minute detour the other night in order to quietly pass some time over the gluten-free cider at Heather's before going to a show at Mo Pitkin's. I am not aware of any other bar in the community that offers what I could get at Heather's--I certainly didn't find gluten-free beer or cider at The Nuyorican Poets Cafe when I attended a storytelling slam there earlier this month.
"Her rationale for being a public benefit to the community," Ms. Militano said, "was that she had a gluten intolerance and was going to open a business, albeit a bar, that was 20 or 30 percent, a small percentage, gluten-free."
Judging from the article and my own experience at Heather's, it appears to me that Millhouse is sincerely trying to be a good, accommodating neighbor--to those in her immediate community as well as those in the international celiac community. (To date, it seems, very few bar owners in the country have given much thought to including one gluten-free beer among their otherwise exhaustive--and, to a celiac, redundant--collections.) That makes me suspect that Heather Millstone is precisely the type of person one would want to run a business in one's community. I'd like to think that the complaints about her bar can be resolved in a spirit of compromise and cooperation, not conflict.