No-frills, all thrills: Downtown Karaoke Bars
Our favorite downtown karaoke bars have something for everybody and we’re sharing them with you.
Those who believe there’s no karaoke quite like Koreatown karaoke probably don’t venture below 14th Street very much. (Though, shoutout to K-Town’s Gagopa where highlights include complimentary candy and Instagram-friendly Christmas light-covered hallways.) Whether you are an aspiring pop diva who requires a well-lit stage, a private room kind of crooner, or an “I don’t do karaoke” type who merely wants to nurse a cheap drink at the bar and eat a burger while strangers serenade strangers—downtown has got it all in the karaoke department. Our favorite spots have something for everybody and we’re sharing them with you. Tip: Just don’t forget your ID and get denied entry like Drake did at one of our favorite no-frills, all-thrills joints.
Up Stairs Bar
Above a busy bus pickup point in Chinatown is the aptly named Up Stairs Bar. Enter what looks like a weathered walkup, climb a narrow staircase toward a hanging neon “OPEN” sign, open a nondescript door, and get ready for a night to remember (or try to remember because the bartenders really know how to pour it up). Upon entering, you’ll realize that Up Stairs isn’t your ordinary karaoke dive. It has an underground feel and a vibe that resembles the cantina scene in Star Wars mixed with that of a modern speakeasy making it the type of experience that you won’t find elsewhere in New York City. No private rooms, no stage, no overactive light machines, no hipper-than-thou attitude, though Up Stairs does attract quite the downtown creative crowd—Greta Gerwig threw her 30th birthday party here, after all. Up Stairs keeps it simple: a long wraparound bar, a couple of wooden tables, two microphones, two screens displaying the lyrics, lots of happy customers. Cocktail glasses stuffed with pieces of paper and pencils are scattered on the bar; write down your song request, hand it to the bartender along with a dollar bill and hope that they have your bop of choice in their extensive song list—an enthralling experience all on its own. The song selection has a slew of options available in English, Mandarin and Cantonese. Also super extensive is the tasty menu. Smaller bites like mozzarella sticks, samosas, fish balls, potato skins, fries, vegetable spring rolls, dumplings, calamari, and edamame will hit the savory spot. Oh, and then there are larger meals, including garlic ribs, pan-fried ramen, burgers, and a damn-fine lamb chop and rib-eye steak. Didn’t we tell you this wasn’t your ordinary karaoke bar? Arrive on the earlier side for happy hour, which ends at 7pm, on any day of the week and you just might witness regulars in their 50s and up chilling, eating, and warbling Chinese ballads at this home-y happy place.
Late night, especially on weekends, you’ll experience a flood of club kids pouring in, many who stay until last call. Sonic spoiler alert: Many will attempt Drake, who, by the way, was once turned away because he forgot his ID and the bouncer didn’t recognize him. Other celebs who remembered their IDs and had their share of fun at this downtown haunt include Azealia Banks, Lorde, Tristan Wilds, and more. But the true superstar of Up Stairs is legendary bar owner, Rena Cho. Cho says people find out about Up Stairs mostly by word of mouth and come back again and again “because of our friendly, welcoming atmosphere.” She says, “Everyone can enjoy their sports games or karaoke.” Expect a wild atmosphere on August 17th when Up Stairs celebrates its 9th anniversary. See you there?!
59 Canal St, New York; T. (646) 559-0098
Another unique, magical, hip ’n’ home-y downtown karaoke bar is the fantastic Baby Grand, where it’s all about the music. The Lafayette Street popular spot is modeled after the super cute, intimate karaoke bars that you’ll find in Tokyo. In other words, this is not a private booth situation, though the charming minuscule space delivers that intimate private room feel. Baby Grand is for true karaoke lovers—even the bartenders have been known to get on the small stage for a song in between serving affordable cocktails. For those wishing to conquer stage fright, Baby Grand is where it’s at. The regulars will cheer you on in this special (and downright adorable) spot. “The greatest city in the world deserves the very best karaoke bar,” says owner Joey Park. “Baby Grand is our vision of fulfilling that responsibility.” He immaculately sums up Baby Grand’s magical vibe: “What sets us apart is our ethos. While most karaoke bars simply treat it as yet another offering, like nachos or shuffleboard, we see karaoke as a grownup version of make-believe. And as with any form of play, it’s only as fun as it is believable. That’s why we place so much emphasis on a quality customer experience. Of course, this only works because our amazing staff encourages the best from our guests, which then creates a magically supportive community of singers every night of the week. It’s a positive feedback loop of happiness.” For more magic, and for free standup comedy shows Monday through Thursday, check out their Greenpoint, Brooklyn location. Oh, and a PS from Park: They’re currently in the process of franchising nationwide. Music to our ears!
Planet Rose is a psychotically fun, quirky gem for karaoke lovers. Expect some aspiring Broadway-divas and many fearless folks belting out classic stadium rock anthems with rafter-reaching pipes that may or may not be on key. Also, prepare for the frequent bachelorette and birthday parties. There’s no stage or private rooms here, but the theatrical albeit welcoming atmosphere feels like a zany cabaret singer’s living room. Other out-there features include cuckoo colorful lights, zebra-print furniture, glowing neon roses, and retro guitars that hang on red walls. It’s a pretty big bar, and the wireless mics allow you to stumble all over the place while getting your American Idol on to an audience of strangers. From ’50s doo-wop numbers to today’s Top 40—there’s plenty to choose from in the great, girthy song book. Also great is arriving early for 2-for-1 happy hour and no charge to sing. It’s two bucks per song after 9pm. The frenetic and friendly energy is infectious, so much so that you’ll never want to leave. Promise.
If you know downtown, you know Sing Sing. The karaoke bars—yes, there’s two of them, and they’re about a ten-minute walk from each other—are still going strong as the East Village’s most well-known, perma-packed spots. Sing Sing’s original St. Mark’s location is fun and practically an EV institution at this point, but we suggest hitting up its Alphabet City offshoot, which has a bit more… personality. It’s an East Village dive. In short, things get very loud and messy (in a good way). Think shots of fireball and many a “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Think bathroom walls vandalized with permanent markers and stickers. In addition, there’s Instagram-friendly artwork, like a large Lady Gaga mural on a wall in the main bar area, and framed posters of The Beastie Boys and more on the walls in the rent-by-the-hour private rooms. Sing Sing Ave A has the feel (and sometimes scent) of boozy basement bar, unsurprisingly attracting some indie rocker, biker jacket-clad types. Tip: If you’re stopping by on a weekend and wish to avoid the madness taking place in the bar area, we recommend booking a private room in said boozy basement well in advance. Expect a waiting list—we’re pretty sure that one out of five downtown New Yorkers have had at least one birthday party in one of these rooms. Song books are massive, sometimes sticky from being drenched in alcohol, and frequently updated with the newest of hits. Microphones may or may not be screechy, but most won’t notice, or care—this one’s for those who like it loud. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
WORDS Alex Catarinella