BY TAMMY SCILEPPI
Astoria has come a long way … from ho-hum to hipster.
Same goes for its bars.
Shining star, Sweet Afton (at 30-09 34th St.), is a great example. There’s something very special about this super-popular neighborhood spot, which is still embracing and celebrating its hip beginnings, 10 years later.
So, if you haven’t already, stop by and check out their smashing revamp and taste their compelling 10th anniversary brew – on tap for a limited time starting later this fall (locally, at sister bar The Bonnie, as well).
While you’re shooting the breeze and sampling Sweet Afton’s well-known craft beer offerings and honest cocktails, don’t forget to order what has been described as the neighborhood’s best burger since 2009. That’s when visionary owner and Ireland native Ruairi Curtin, first opened the doors to what was considered a truly “new wave” bar, with his savvy business partners (all young Irish immigrants) — after opening popular Manhattan bars Bua (East Village, 2004) and Wilfie & Nell (West Village, 2008).
It was just what Astoria’s young creative community was craving.
“In 10 years, the neighborhood has changed immensely. When I moved to Astoria 20 years ago, I couldn’t understand the lack of nice bars and restaurants,” said Curtin, who also owns The Bonnie (Astoria), as well as The Penrose (Upper East Side), and is co-owner of The Spaniard (West Village), The Wren (Bowery), Bua and Wilfie & Nell.
“For myself and my friends who worked in Manhattan and lived in Astoria, the options of neighborhood bars were pretty grim — not much beyond the dingy old Irish bars that had been there for 30 years or more — which are wonderful in their own way, but not always what you were looking for,” Curtain said. “The space was originally a tobacco warehouse when the building was first built; Sweet Afton is an old Irish tobacco brand. We also love the Robert Burns [national poet of Scotland] angle too, though.”
He added: “We’re proud to be one of the very first more forward-thinking, restaurants and bars to demonstrate that Astoria is more than just a sleepy, working-class neighborhood across the river from Manhattan.”
To celebrate Sweet Afton’s success, Curtin decided that a refreshing re-design was in order.
“I firmly believe you’ve always got to be reinventing yourself as a business. You stand still, you die: it’s always important to be relevant as the world changes around you,” he said.
“But at the core, I don’t think Sweet Afton has changed at all. Our original regulars have grown up a bit, but essentially we are the same Sweet Afton that opened 10 years ago, with the same principles: great food, great drinks and great staff in a friendly, welcoming atmosphere.”
Designer Kris Moran, who has worked as set decorator for director/screenwriter Wes Anderson — in addition to other projects, like Todd Phillips’ upcoming “Joker” film with Joaquin Phoenix (out in October) — was the creative mind behind the bar’s amazing facelift. Subtle, cool changes that enlivened the space include a mural inspired by the River Afton (by Brooklyn artist Mackenzie Younger), tile mosaics on the floor, vintage light fixtures that bring out the warm wood, and more.
“They were looking to take a bar loved by a decade of loyal patrons — a home away from home to many — and celebrate its 10th birthday; escort it into its 10th year in a new suit, without anyone noticing too much,” Moran explained.
“We cleaned it up around the edges and behind the ears and added some color into the bones. On Ruairi Curtin’s suggestion, we decided to change the flooring in half of the bar from poured concrete to custom designed hex tile, reminiscent of the flooring in the 1800s in his home country. We did a couple large strokes that left ninety percent of what was there in place … to make a swell impact.”
Sweet Afton teamed up with Mikkeller (the acclaimed, cutting-edge international brewers have a taproom at their only NYC spot, in Citi Field) on their limited-edition, special recipe brew, and put it out to the bar’s Instagram followers to name the beer. After getting nearly 200 “pretty amazing responses,” they chose “Time Afton Time.” Mikkeller head brewer Richie Saunders, who works at the Citi Field location, describes the beer as “a bright and crisp American-style lager, hopped exclusively with Citra to provide a mild, but modern, fruity twist.”
But there’s more to celebrate.
Beloved, longtime bartender Stu Whalley, who bravely battled lymphoma last year, was back behind the bar during Sweet Afton’s anniversary bash end of August. Thankfully, he’s in remission now, living in Forest Hills and working at Silver Light Tavern in Brooklyn (the new spot from Sweet Afton’s original co-owner Mike Krawiec).
“It was very strange to be back at Afton after almost two years – and two very intense years at that – but great to see people I’ve not seen in a while,” Whalley said.
Back in the day, Sweet Afton was a real trendsetter: the first of an exciting new wave of modern, hipster bars in Astoria (without TVs), where you could hang out with old and new friends and drink cask ale and artisanal cocktails, surrounded by the warmth of exposed brick and reclaimed wood.
“Honestly, when my husband and I moved to Astoria from San Francisco that year , Sweet Afton became our local because it felt so much like the spots we loved on the West Coast,” communications manager Chelsea Morse recalled.
“The design refresh is really helping the space grow up a little bit but stay true to its cozy neighborhood vibe.”