I’m a regular at NYC’s best-kept secret – a piano bar where strangers are friends and musicians know my name

Michael Isaacs playing at Brandy's Piano Bar in New York City
Brandy’s Piano Bar and performer Michael Isaacs Phil Rosen/Insider
  • Brandy’s Piano Bar has been in business for decades and has award-winning Broadway performers as staff.
  • Employees performed virtual shows and played concerts in the snow to keep the bar alive throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • The bar is back in full swing, and Insider’s Phil Rosen has become a regular.

I moved to New York three months ago, but already I’ve visited Brandy’s Piano Bar more times than I can count.

Had the drinks been more expensive and the musicians less spectacular, my first visit would have remained a one-off pit stop. But the shabby, old-timey cabaret has become my favorite watering hole in the city.

Hidden away on East 84th Street in the Upper East Side, Brandy’s is an offbeat place with in-tune music. It’s a place where the bartender joins in on choruses while pouring an Old Fashioned, and the server completes a duet as she ferries a tray of gin-and-tonics to patrons she knows by first name.

Performers volley jokes back and forth while calling out drink orders. Regulars in the audience toss barbs right back.

“Brandy’s is really the closest thing left [in New York] to an old, old-school piano bar,” said singer-actress Liz Lark Brown, who began performing at the bar five years ago. “It’s a wooden hole-in-the-wall with a lot of character and phenomenal talent.”

The bar is old. Letters on the window read, “Same Old Brandy’s.” It looks like it’s been there forever – and it almost has been. Some say the location has housed a bar since Prohibition, and it’s been “Brandy’s” since the 1960s. The owner changed the name to “Brandy’s Piano Bar” around 1980.

Musician Michael Isaacs started at Brandy’s more than 20 years ago. He told Insider he performs all over the country, “but there really is nothing like Brandy’s.”

Isaacs, who walked in five minutes before 9:30 p.m. with a six-pack of seltzer water, wore a T-shirt and tattered cargo shorts. He would point and shout, “repeat offender!” mid-song when someone he recognized walked in – which was nearly every guest.

Sober and full of energy, Isaacs gave soulful renditions of Prince, Billy Joel, and John Lennon. He adjusted the microphone every few seconds to accommodate for his erratic activity: During each song, Isaacs switches between standing and sitting and kneeling, all while dishing zingers at his fellow staffers.

Because space is tight, there’s a “no dancing” rule. Small, round tables and wobbly chairs populate the space around the piano. Music bounces off the fading, antiquated French posters adorning the maroon walls. The light fixtures, one of the bar staff told me, are the original gas lamps (now electrified) from decades ago.

“We get so many regulars, we know who to expect in the crowd on what night, and they all know who’s performing,” Mario Davila, who works at the bar, told Insider. Davila had been coming to Brandy’s for nearly 30 years before taking over as manager in 2018.

For decades, management has allowed the staff to run the bar unsupervised. Owner Jim Luzar, who got his start as a bartender at Brandy’s in 1980, told me he trusts the performers to throw the best party in town, every single night.

“It’s your neighborhood dive bar that’s nothing fancy,” Luzar said. “But we’ve got some damn good singers who love working here.”

A talented guest sings at Brandy's Piano Bar, while Isaacs plays piano.
Michael Isaacs plays piano while a guest singer performs at Brandy’s Piano Bar. Phil Rosen/Insider

Navigating the pandemic

If I had instead showed up at Brandy’s in 2020, I would have found a much different scene.

Like other businesses in New York City, the bar endured a difficult pandemic. The staff had to adapt to stay afloat this year.

The bar shut its doors for nearly a year in March 2019 due to COVID-19, and trouble continued when indoor performances were suspended in July 2020.

“It was a tough battle during COVID,” Davila said. “But there was not a single complaint from the staff. Everyone really gave 100% to keep things running.”

The staffers remained upbeat – first with virtual shows, and then winter sidewalk concerts.

“Our staff was out there in 4-degree weather performing every night,” Luzar said.

A post shared by Brandy’s Piano Bar (@brandyspianobar)

“People brought blankets and just sat and watched outside,” Brown added. “And we stood up there, singing in our parkas in the snow in December and January. We didn’t want to lose the bar.”

With the virtual shows, Davila launched a GoFundMe page to support employees and keep the lights on.

“In two [virtual] concerts, we raised about $US25,000 ($AU34,232) for the staff,” Davila said. ‘Then we did a series of virtual concerts in August [2020] that raised another $US30,000 ($AU41,079) to keep the bar open.”

Back and better than ever

The bar has since returned to full swing with its grungy, plain décor straight out of 1979.

But that’s the allure. People go to Brandy’s not for flash and glamour, Davila said, but to be entertained by talented artists who know their names.

“Everyone here is so good at what they do, whether that’s acting or dancing or singing or playing [piano],” Isaacs added. “I love coming to work because I just grow so much with this group.”

Isaacs, like the other performers, often calls on audience members to sing along from their shoulder-to-shoulder seats. One night, three audience members went up and sang. One didn’t have experience as a singer, but it didn’t matter – the crowd sang along with him, too.

Most of the staff have worked at Brandy’s for more than a decade, and Davila said two have been there for more than 30 years. Depending on the night, performers may have a dozen awards between them.

Management prides itself on hiring working professionals. Luzar explained that staffers often go away on tour for months or even years at a time, but he always promises their job – and the same bar they left – will be waiting for them when they get back.

Now that I’ve been a few times, I know to show up to Brandy’s before 9:30 p.m. to get a good seat. The music is so lively and the audience so engaged that, when midnight rolls around, it feels like I’d just arrived.

“We don’t need fancy cocktails or hors d’oeuvres,” Luzar said. “When you walk in, you can feel the camaraderie.”

When I got up to leave the other night, the tip jar next to the piano was full. I thanked the staff and said “See you next time” to the people who sat around me – the regulars who had learned my name.

It was the first time I went to Brandy’s alone, but on my way out I found myself shaking hands with too many people to count. Like a family reunion, an extended conversation appended each goodbye – only these were goodbyes with friends who had been strangers just a few hours prior.

Good music. Talented performers. Stiff drinks. A togetherness between the staff and regulars.

Same old Brandy’s.