Montero’s is my favorite bar in Brooklyn and hence New York. The 72-year-old establishment sits at the westernmost end of Atlantic Avenue; from there it’s a two-minute walk underneath an overpass of the BQE to the relatively quiet waterfront. The waterfront whispers today compared to the rowdiness of its old life, when Montero’s was one of more than a hundred bars on Atlantic. Still, few people know there’s still activity down there: several hundred longshoremen, employees of American Stevedoring, work six remaining piers every day. From the docks you can see the red, pink and blue neon sign (“Montero Bar and Grill”) that dates to the 1940s. Spending time in Montero’s is as close to revisiting the past as one can get these days. In its lonely outpost Montero’s is like a sentry on guard even after the war has ended.
Montero’s is one of the oldest continuously family-run establishments in the city. Joseph Montero, a seaman, opened the bar in 1938 across the street and further west, before the BQE arrived. He moved to the current location in 1947. The waterfront was alive then. Countless bars lined Atlantic Avenue all the way to Fifth Avenue. State Street, a block up, held the brothels.
As Wendell Jamieson, a Montero’s regular, longtime Times city reporter and now editor, wrote in 2006:
These days Smith Street is the busy street, but if you wanted to have fun 50 years ago, well, Atlantic Avenue was the place to be. Bars and restaurants lined both sides as it rose from the docks — Whiteys, Joe Arozzas’, Montero’s, Caticas’, Veiro’s bar. Most had Spanish names because this corner of Brooklyn Heights was all Spanish.
Joseph’s wife, Pilar, who is now 87, often still occupies her usual spot on a stool near the entrance. Their son, also Joseph, who goes by Pepe, and his wife, Linda, have managed the bar since the patriarch retired to Spain around 1997 and died soon after. Montero’s is a friendly place and the family’s and neighborhood’s history are preserved inside. Its glass-brick bar is original, and every inch of the walls and alcoves are covered with nautical memorabilia – life preservers, newspaper clippings, model ships – family photos and other keepsakes of the old Brooklyn waterfront. Two wooden telephone booths are still there.
I feel at home there in great part because it reminds me of my grandfather’s house; his life was owning a bar, or gin mill as he called it, in Paterson, New Jersey. His basement was haphazardly but so charmingly decorated like Montero’s. Things like Cutty Sark replica ships are displayed in both places as if they’re works of art. My grandfather would’ve enjoyed Montero’s.
I’ve been in Montero’s when I was the only customer, but had a fun time talking to Alan, the weekday bartender, whose knowledge of New York City is extensive. I’ve been there on Friday nights when the place was so crowded you could barely move, an eclectic crowd of firefighters, cops, hipsters, preppies, old and young, surely unlike anywhere else in the city on that night. I’ve been there on Saturday nights where Pepe arrived with pasta Linda had made for everyone. They do the same regularly for the firehouse on Hicks Street. Besides a video jukebox, and karaoke on Fridays, little has changed here in more than a half-century. Which is what I like the most.
For much more on Montero’s wonderful history, here are three articles:
“The Fleet’s In: In the Harbor, and the Bar” [New York Times, July 11, 2007]
“The Quarrel” [New York Times, March 5, 2006]
“My Brooklyn; A Raffish Reminder, Landlubbers, of Saltier Days” [New York Times, May 9, 2003]