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The Rise and Fall of Ladies’ Nights on the Upper East Side

  Last modified on July 16th, 2024

The 1990s are known for their fair share of fads: heroin chic, Tamagotchis and chokers, all in an era when MTV was still playing music. On the Upper East Side, ladies’ nights–where women drank for free or close to it–emerged with the hype of the Beanie Babies craze before fading out in similar fashion.

By most accounts, the ‘90s aren’t considered a golden era in New York City history. The ‘70s had a sense of freedom with nothing left to lose (“Fun City”), while the ‘80s were marked by a hedonistic extravagance—at least until the Black Monday stock market crash in 1987.

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This reshaped the demographics of the upscale Upper East Side. Normandie Court, spanning an entire block between East 95th and 96th streets and Second and Third avenues, began offering deeply discounted rents at its complex of four 34-story beige towers around the same time as the crash. The development quickly earned the nickname “Dorm-andie Court” court for its wild, college-esque atmosphere that became synonymous with the area. It marked the beginning of a new frontier uptown.

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In November 1992, The New York Times reported that 25 new bars had opened on the Upper East Side over the last few years. There were a total of 4,875 places where you could have a beer in NYC, but the new additions on the Upper East Side had “turned the area between 76th and 96th Streets, York to Third Avenue, into something of a party zone just one remove from a college dormitory.” Spots like Richter’s, Blue Moon, and Czar Bar were in hot competition for thirsty patrons.

blue moon cafe upper east side

c/o Google Maps, 2009

Then came the gimmick that would soon turn the Upper East Side into ‘the’ place to party in the early ‘90s. The idea was simple: women drink for free. The concept was reportedly hatched by Far Out Lounge on First Avenue. In a Field of Dreams-like manner, if you build a clientele of skirts, the suits would surely follow.

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Behold, ladies’ night was a smash hit, and by 1991, there were at least a dozen copycats, all within walking distance of each other. Some bars offered ladies’ night specials three times a week. “On Tuesdays, no fewer than seven local places between 75th and 94th Streets offer[ed] free draft beer and mixed drinks: the Blue Moon, Brother Jimmy’s, Czar Bar, the Far Out Lounge, Richter’s, the Outback, and the Ski Bar,” reported The New York Times. Jungle Jim’s had a special on Wednesdays and Thursdays, offering free champagne, while other bars offered discounts instead of free beverages. What Ales You, conveniently located around the corner from New York Hospital, served cheap drinks for nurses. This was the perfect recipe while the country was in the midst of a recession, with unemployment on the rise.

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“It’s a trend that’s going to change profitability,” said Klay Reynolds, the owner of the Outback, an Australian-themed bar that sat on Third Avenue at 93rd Street. It had a steel roof, oil drums for tables, and a sawdust carpet. The Outback was famously known for its “Men Are Pigs” nights, three times a week. Initially, women could drink whatever they wanted, top shelf included, but that didn’t last long. “I went through more Bailey’s Irish Cream in one month than I used to in a whole year,” he said. So, Reynolds changed the business plan, offering only draft beer and cheap mixed drinks. It worked just as well. “For every woman who came to sip a drink in the sawdust, two men gathered around an oil drum with imported beers in hand to share,” reported The New York Times. Reynolds said it cost him roughly two dollars to put a girl in his bar for two hours.

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Like the Outback, theme bars began taking over the scene on the Upper East Side. “Over the last several years, First and Second Avenues have become a bit of a fallen Disneyworld,” the Times reported in 1994. Fred Sampson, the president of the New York Restaurant and Bar Association, said “Younger people just don’t want to stand around in some bar. They need a mood, an ambiance, a theme. It’s a matter of changing tastes. They have a short attention span.”

Live Psychic on East 84th Street offered free beverages alongside $10 tarot card readings, where live psychics worked beside the dance floor. American Trash, a biker-themed establishment which lasted until 2022, adorned its walls and ceiling with real garbage. Harry’s Hula Hut boasted bamboo walls, palm trees and a Nerf basketball setup, offering all-you-can-drink beer. At Geronimo’s Bamba Bay Café, a Tex-Mex spot with a surfer theme, guests were greeted at the entrance by a statue of Geronimo the Apache Surfer. This was the venue for “Ultimate Ladies Night,” featuring free margaritas all night and complimentary tacos during happy hour.

American Trash 2011

c/o Google Maps, 2011

When it came to over-the-top, boozy-theme bars, Ski Bar on Second Avenue between 94th and 95th streets was boss. Known for its Alpine motif and its famous slalom shot where ‘Slalom Girls’ poured a Jaeger/Tequila mixture down a four-foot-long twisting slab of ice, Ski Bar was the brainchild of Keith Block and his business partner, Adam Singer.

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Ski Bar featured bartenders in neon pants, a Ski-Doo snowmobile suspended from the ceiling, and a DJ booth fashioned from a ski lift gondola from Killington Ski Resort in Vermont. The New York Times compared Ski Bar’s vibe to a “nothing-can-be-this-fun” beer commercial. They even had patrons drinking on the bar top, predating Coyote Ugly which opened in January 1993.


“It became a whole shit show,” said Block in an interview with VinePair. By 1994, Ski Bar had lines down the block and the police began putting up barricades to keep people from stumbling into Second Avenue. “We just want to party to the very end,” said Dave Gershenow, 22, from Washington Heights, after doing a slalom shot. By now, neighbors were becoming unhappy with the wee-hour noise, public urination and drunken brawls. When Rudy Giuliani was elected mayor in 1994, he enacted Operation Last Call, with the 19th Precinct sending a sergeant and five cops out to check noise levels with a meter and hand out summonses. Community Board 8 had taken notice of the scene too, and new State Liquor Authority rules allowed them to be more effective in discouraging new bar openings.


It should be noted that not every bar was a hit with patrons. “Basically, we walk in, get our free drinks, give the scum dirty looks and walk out,” said a college student named Rebecca about Far Out Lounge. “We don’t even like this place. But we’re not going to complain,” said her friend Sara.

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Technically, ladies’ nights were illegal in New York. They had been since 1972, after a complaint was brought against the New York Yankees for offering “Ladies’ Days,” wherein admission prices for women were lower than those for men. “Ladies’ Days” were found to constitute unlawful sex discrimination, and the decision was upheld on appeal.

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Still, bars took their chances with Ladies’ Night deals. Even as the opposition spoke up, like when Daveda Copeland from the Women’s Christian Temperance Union said, “They’re exploiting women by using them to attract men.” Nevertheless, many women enjoyed free beer at places like Clubhouse on York Avenue or Spanky’s, a sports bar on 75th Street, during these lavish ladies’ nights. The men did too. Brad Lauren summed it up at the time as “the most socially acceptable form of discrimination.”

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It was indeed the last call for ladies’ night on the Upper East Side in April 1998. Prompted by neighbors’ complaints, the city shut down four Upper East Side bars over one weekend. Deputy Mayor Rudy Washington, chairman of the city’s Social Club Task Force, had already closed 50 to 60 legal and illegal establishments since its inception in 1996. The four bars shut down by the task force were all within a few dozen blocks of one another and were closed for various health and fire code violations. Mad River Bar & Grille, located at 1442 Third Avenue between 81st and 82d Streets, was shuttered by the Fire Department for failing to have a functioning sprinkler system. Ski Bar (1825 Second Avenue) and Bar New York (1819 Second Avenue) were closed for lacking restaurant permits, according to Sandy Mullin, a City Health Department spokeswoman. Reminisce Lounge, found at 334 East 73d Street between First and Second avenues, had let its restaurant permit expire.

mad river upper east side

c/o Google Maps, 2014. Mad River didn’t close for good until 2020.

The Ski Bar location is now occupied by Enzo Bruni, but its legacy lives on as many of its old-school regulars stay connected through a Facebook group called The Original Ski Bar NYC 1990s. You can even find pictures of the iconic gondola DJ booth.

Considering the world’s first singles bar was born on the Upper East Side in 1965, it’s likely just a matter of time till the next big idea comes roaring through here.


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  1. David K July 10, 2024
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