How COVID and a Bus Stop Chased Benson’s from Essex Street
The following guest post was penned by Boogie reader Sydney Fishman.
For five years, Benson’s held down the corner of East Houston and Essex Streets with craft beers, sumptuous burgers, and the occasional movie night.
The movie nights, according to owner Annie Morton, were the highlight of Benson’s tenure on the Lower East Side. Before coronavirus destroyed the intimacy of indoor events, the establishment would host a night for customers to present their favorite films. On one such occasion, a regular gave a presentation on her favorite Star Wars movie. She spoke about trivia and fun facts, and then everyone watched the film together.
“Everyone really got to take ownership of it,” Morton said during a recent conversation.
This past September, though, Morton and David Peterson, her business partner and bartender, announced they would have to close. Adhering to pandemic-related restrictions, which have shuttered an unprecedented number of restaurants and bars around the city, became impossible.
The bar, a tiny storefront with the M14A bus stop on its doorstep, couldn’t be reconfigured to compete with the 75% of restaurants that had started building outdoor dining. And the indoor space was too small to follow CDC guidelines for social distancing.
Because city-based laws restrict storefronts from erecting structures in front of a bus stop, Morton could only place a few tables outside.
“It was definitely a pretty solid nail in the coffin,” she told us. “It means that you’re going to kill yourself trying for the next 12 months. It would have been illegal for us to do an outdoor dining setup, and you can’t operate a restaurant with just three tables.”
A skeleton crew – mainly Morton, Peterson, and their specialty cook – poured drinks and worked in the kitchen while customers dined outside. It was a popular destination in the summer, but the bar was at its capacity and there was no room to grow.
By the end of summer, Morton informed customers that they would be closing by Halloween.
“I was so sad because it felt like I was letting my community down,” she said. “It felt like I let myself down because I couldn’t continue to provide for them.”
She confided in her longtime friend and customer, Chad Hansen, that she was saddened by the closure.
“I remember half-joking that I should keep a tally of days between now and closing of how much I cry,” she said. “It was pretty much for the first four days that it was very consistent.”
Hansen, who was a regular at Benson’s since it first opened in April of 2015, said the closure meant an ending to the community he formed there. Although he knew this was an overused reference, he truly felt like it was an episode of Cheers every time he stopped by.
“For the first six months, I was there every day,” he said. “We really ended up living there.”
When it officially shut its doors, Hansen and his friends searched for another bar that would provide the sense of community that Benson’s did, but they had no luck.
“One of the great things about Benson’s is that we built an awesome community of people,” Hansen said.
The bar had a slew of regulars. Morton and Peterson recognized most of their customers from the neighborhood, but there were many newcomers still discovering the place.
Morton and Peterson, who moved to New York from Australia, would have tourists raving about the Australian options on the menu. A Yelp reviewer said, “The list here is expertly put together, and you absolutely can, and should find a few Australian beers. Just come for the burger and stay for the beer.” Other reviewers, who talked about Morton’s accent, said, “Our favorite part was our bartender, Annie, we caught her name at the end of our conversation and she is from Australia and so hilarious.”
On a warm summer day, I would see a group of friends sitting outside of Benson’s playing board games. Locals would work remotely and sit with their dogs, as they tried to nibble at their food. “It has been really difficult to recreate this environment,” Hansen repeated on our phone call.
When the bar closed in the fall, Morton needed a vacation. Soon after she finished packing and selling restaurant supplies in December, she left New York. She scored a job where she can work remotely.
Although the closure has been bittersweet, she said the silver lining is having time to spend with friends and family.
“One of the things I am most looking forward to is the ability to be a better friend, sister and daughter,” she said.
Morton said that they will not be opening up another location for the time being.