I had a really wonderful time one night at City Winery in New York City. I must have, because I have gone there at least a half a dozen times in the past ten years, and only for a small portion of that time did I actually live close to New York. Upon the writing of this review, though, I can’t for the life of me recall when that good time might have been.
Maybe things have changed. Maybe they’ve squeezed more seats in over the years to wring a little more profit from the same amount of space. Did they really always seat four people at two-top tables? Had I just been blessed enough to always select a seat with at least an appropriately-sized table attached?
After getting the four-seat at a two-top experience at City Winery NYC, though, I am making an official vow as a concert-goer. I will never return to New York City Winery for concerts, except under the very severest of conditions. I’m aware that’s not the most resolute of vows, but every true music lover acknowledges there are some performers they would slog half a mile through cow shit to see.
Anyway, on with the view.
First, let’s be positive!
The sound at the City Winery NYC is outstanding. Once through the big wooden doors, the traffic noise on the streets outside disappears, proof that every effort was taken to insulate the space from the busy city beyond its walls. The sound system, likewise, doesn’t disappoint. The vocals and every instrument in every band I have seen there sound crisp and clear. Only when the music stops, or you are downstairs in or near the restroom, can you hear the trains running through the subway tunnels below.
I’ve been in lots of small-to-medium venues that sit right next to streets in New York City, and I’m not sure any of them match the sound quality at City Winery. Seriously, it’s like crawling inside a pair of top-brand noise-canceling headphones, with all the richness and intimacy that eliminating the outside world provides.
If this review were solely sound-based, City Winery would be straight-up gold. What a glorious venue it would be if you could just go in, sit comfortably, and listen. There’s not a spot in the place that doesn’t sound incredible.
But a venue is more than just its acoustics, and unfortunately, great sound can’t make up for two or more hours of hassle and discomfort. Before we get to that, though, let’s skip over the space itself for a moment, and focus on City’s Winery’s less tarnishing features.
Food & Drink
City Winery NYC’s menu ain’t that bad. It ain’t that good either. But, unless you’re going there expressly to eat, that shouldn’t dampen your experience too much. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are a few things on the appetizer menu that reach the high praise of yummy. Most of the stuff, though, is pretty middling in its quality. If you’re craving a burger, for instance, I would highly recommend stopping somewhere along the way.
But it is convenient that City Winery has food available if you’re running late, or just want to get to where you’re going for the night and stay there. Or if you need to soak up all the wine you’re planning to imbibe so you don’t end up sloshed and on the train to Queens instead of headed toward your uptown hotel.
Because, if you’re like most of the patrons at City Winery events, and you’re going to consume something at City Winery, it’s more than likely going to be booze – even more likely that booze will be wine – and, if you enjoy an alcoholic drink with your live music, you should. Unsurprisingly, the wine selection at City is stellar (it would be pretty problematic if it wasn’t), and I assume the beer is decent enough too. I’ve never heard anyone complain about it. Though, expect it to come in a bottle, because at City Winery the wine is the star of Drinks menu, so that’s what’s on tap.
City Winery’s full wine list is truly mind-boggling. If you know you want wine, but don’t know which wine you want, a pre-perusal of the wine list or an early arrival to ask questions of the staff might be beneficial. Otherwise, you could spend half the show trying to choose. Decision fatigue is real, my friends, and, at City Winery, it’ll likely set in by page 30 of the wine list (at which point, you won’t even be halfway through).
If its spirits you seek, the supply isn’t quite as impressive, but you’ve still got plenty of options for sipping or mixed drinks. No house cocktails, though, so if you want something that isn’t wine, beer, neat, or on rocks, it helps to know what you want. That doesn’t mean City Winery will have all the makings for it at the bar, but I’ve heard servers suggest substitutions for similar drinks if someone orders a cocktail with an ingredient they don’t keep on hand. It helps that the servers are pretty familiar with the Drinks menu (or fake it really well).
Great wine, solid sound, it should be the foundation for a satisfying music venue. And, in many ways, City Winery meets expectations. But now is the time to ask yourself, Why am I choosing City Winery as my music venue? Do I want a night out eating and drinking with a little background entertainment, or am I going specifically to enjoy a concert? The answer to this question (along with your seat selection) will pretty much determine the kind of experience you’re going to have.
All of the seats at City Winery have a reasonably good view. The venue is small, so you won’t need binoculars, the tables in the back and at the bar are elevated, so even short people have a fighting chance, and no one gets situated fully behind a column.
That said, the number of “best” seats at City Winery NYC are few. While the chairs at the high tables in the bar area have backs, for instance, most of the high-table seats in the venue do not. They’re just stools, which is fine for a thirty-minute pop-in for a glass of wine, but not easy-sitting for a 2-hour+ concert.
Then, there are the seats in the front – all regular chairs, all at tables – which are pretty much a crapshoot of potential misery. I’m talking those four-chairs-at-two-top-table seats mentioned above. And this is not an exaggeration. These are actual tables sold in a store as two-top tables with four chairs squeezed around them. And don’t forget, these are the tables you are supposed to attempt to eat at if you do order food. Good luck to ya.
Given the obvious logistical issue here, it makes perfect sense that there are seats at City Winery with zero space between them. Not one inch. Not two inches. We’re talking chair to chair baby. And that becomes pretty problematic when the strangers around you turn their chairs every which way to get a better view, cutting into your already nonexistent space, because there are zero employees policing the room to make sure jerk patrons aren’t acting a fool.
Arrive after your seat neighbor, and need a crow bar to get into the chair you paid to sit in? Bad luck for you! If you can’t physically or mentally endure being twisted all the hell up to accommodate another person’s comfort, you can always stand in the back. (Which is what I did the last time I visited City Winery. For two hours). The point being, there are some uncomfortable seats on the City Winery NYC seating chart, and there are some seriously misery-inducing seats. It doesn’t matter how good the sound is if you’re in pain (or just annoyed) all night.
Speaking of annoyance, due to the nature of the venue, a night out at City Winery is also highly dependent upon the thirst or hunger level of the person sitting beside you. End up sharing a table with someone who’s just there to get drunk, or who popped a weed gummy before they walked in and is in a state of serious munchie-itis, you can look forward to an evening of interruption.
And since the tables are so claustrophobically placed, it is often easier for a server to pass things over you or yell into your ear than to go around to your table mate’s side of the table. All because Jimmy Rando over there is hankering for another lager.
I’ve had decent times at New York City Winery concerts – though, I can’t specifically recall one at the moment – and I’ve had hellish times at concerts there. The sound is dependable, but the inconsistency of the experience each time makes it a hard venue to recommend or look forward to visiting in the future.
Bottom line, if there is someone you really want to see in concert, and City Winery New York is the only venue within your radius or budget to get to, go. Pray you get one of the less-troublesome seats, but go. I guarantee it will sound good.
If, however, you can make it to a venue where the seats are made for sitting, and the music takes precedence over the vending of food and booze, it might be worth a road trip.