Harlem Nights owner and bartender Claud Fatu considers himself a citizen of the world. Born in Romania, he lived in the Middle East and on military bases in Oklahoma and North Carolina before moving to NYC post-college to pursue a career in finance. After the mortgage market collapse and a lay off on Wall Street, he found himself turning to bartending as a means of picking up the pieces. It was then that he discovered the construction industry, an interest that earned him a contractor’s license and, most recently, his very own bar: Harlem Nights, a recent addition to the neighborhood that serves up live music all week long in a relaxed setting. Here, Fatu talks about his favorite nightcap, why self-motivation is key to success, and the next trip he’s taking.
BoozeMenus: You've created a few drinks for the menu to honor Harlem - what went through your mind in creating these cocktails, in particular?
Claud Fatu: Drinks that honor Harlem only seemed natural for a place located in the heart of Harlem. I wanted my bar to be a part of Harlem and I wanted Harlem to be a part of my bar. The names of the drinks and the drinks themselves were supposed to be fun and playful. I wanted them to feel like they have a long local history, just the way I designed the rustic vintage look —taking new materials and making them look old and worn in.
BM: You're also a contractor. What's important to keep in mind when building out and designing a bar — especially in NYC?
CF: Being a contractor helped me immensely in this project. In fact, I am almost certain I could not have opened a bar, at least not anytime soon, had I not been a builder myself. The renovation of a bar costs way too much money, takes way too long, and is way too intricate. I was not only able to do it all by myself, but I did it on a budget that's unheard of for a bar build-out of this scale. I did it all properly without cutting corners of avoiding building codes, and was able to see the construction from a bartender's viewpoint of efficiency, as well. Working with myself, for myself, while only arguing with myself was a perfect relationship.
BM: What did you consider in terms of design?
CF: I never studied design. I never consulted anyone for design ideas. I only did what made me feel good. I wanted a homey place that felt comfortable to anyone. I wanted a grandmotherly charm that read nostalgic, rustic and warm. There were a few design features that just evolved as we were building it. The old brass pipes we found inside the demolished walls that I then turned into handrails were never something I planned. The massive brick wall I found behind 4 layers of old walls was a nice surprise, though it brought on tedious work I never signed up for. The mosaic century old ceramic tiles found under three layers for flooring was as if I had discovered Ancient Alexandria; the flooring also saved me from laying down hard wood planks as I had originally intended. While demolishing the old space, I found "treasures" everywhere and brought back a ton of the old charm that had been hiding. No one could have seen or predicted the evolution; I just worked with what the space was giving me.
BM: How would you describe the drinks scene in Harlem versus the rest of the city?
CF: Harlem locals tend to have a different taste. I go through a ton more of certain liquors I never sell in my old bars and substantially less of others popular downtown. I also find people caring a lot more about food when going out for drinks than I had expected. Harlem has been a great learning experience for me, but I always knew I would evolve with the neighborhood.
BM: What drink on the menu are you most fond of right now?
CF: My two favorite drinks on the menu are the Harlem Sizzle — a spicy tequila one with berries — and the Morning Tea — a cognac iced tea. There's only one reason why they're my chosen two: the crowd loves them. They are our top sellers. As far as I see it, if Harlem loves them, I love them back.
BM: What ingredients are you loving right now?
CF: I first must give credit to my amazing staff and ultra talented bartenders. They keep the drinks going so I can keep the business going. Originally, the drinks were a joint effort between myself and Jenny, one of our bartenders. I mostly came up with ideas and she put together recipes. For our fall/winter menu, which is currently in the works, we are all bringing something to the table to create multilayered drinks. I do love fruit flavors and natural ingredients. We use a lot of fresh syrups and homemade purées. I even put two commercial filters on our water lines that make the ice and all the sodas in the gun so that the tap water is even better tasting and of better quality.
BM: What’s your nightcap of choice?
CF: Red wine or sangria tend to tranquilize me and get me on my way to dreaming faster.
BM: Who, what or where inspire you in your work?
CF: I find inspiration in everyday life. For those tough moments that never seem to go away, I do dig deeper and channel my military perseverance. I served in the US Army for 6 years. That taught me a lot of valuable lessons that will always stay with me. I also served in a Drill Sergeant unit. We used to have to motivate others everyday, so motivating myself is only instinctual. I'm definitely a big cheerleader when it comes to life.
BM: Which night last week was your favorite to work, and why do you think it was?
CF: I love working the live music events. Musicians bring such different energy to the space and they never sound the same. It's like blind dating for your ears. Last week we had these young artists who loved being on our stage so much that they played an extra two hours. They got paid for three hours but kept playing for five. That's love.
BM: Where are you traveling to next and what are you excited to drink?
CF: My next trip is definitely taking me home to spend some days with my family. I really look forward to having a glass of wine with dad. He always loves it when we share his wine — he makes his own wine. My grandfather was a winemaker. He owned a vineyard and made wines. He owned a bar for most of his life, which he inherited from his dad, but was taken away from him by communism after WWII. I fell I'm living his legacy. But this time, I'm really excited to bring home a bottle, or several, of the wine I have personally selected for my bar. I'm bringing Harlem Nights home.
By Nicole Schnitzler
(Photos from left: Cherry Snow Cones; Claud Fatu; Cocktail)