New York, USA: Celebrity-endorsed Sophie's is one of New York's best dive bars

Celebrities have hung out here. The bartenders are tight-lipped, as all good bartenders should be, but a bit of digging unearths the names of actors: Jeff Bridges, Alexander Skarsgard, comedians (David Cross) and musicians (Josh Homme of Queens Of The Stone Age).

Sophie's, a neighbourhood dive bar on East 5th Street in Manhattan's Alphabet City, is however anything but an A-list hangout. That's the whole point.

When Anthony Bourdain visited in 2009 for one of his TV shows, he defined the place and its ilk like this: "I don't want no wide screens, high-fiving white guys, no fauxhawks or gel heads or hot chicks with douchebags. I don't want anything on the jukebox that will distract an old gentleman such as myself from drinking the heart right out of the afternoon if I should choose to do so. Where can a guy get a drink when the last gin mill closes down, when there's nothing left but the fern bar or the lounge, when the barkeep has been replaced by a mixologist?"

And the answer to that last question, as long as you're in the door before 4am, is Sophie's. While Starbucks and Target have recently invaded this East Village neighbourhood and gentrification continues to drive up rents while driving beloved bars, cafes, stores and delis out, Sophie's remains a hold-out from a time when New York was a grittier, more affordable place.

The bar was recently celebrated with the release of a limited edition photo book called See You Next Tuesday. All the regulars at Sophie's knew the photographer well – Kyle de Vre has tended bar at Sophie's every Tuesday on the 3pm to 9pm shift for the past five years. Each week the 31-year-old brings along his trusty 1970s Hasselblad camera and snaps portraits of the local characters who treat Sophie's as a meeting place, hideout or second home.

Did he used to drink at Sophie's before he started working here?

"I still drink here even when I'm not working," he says. "I live across the street."

With his moustache, trucker cap and tattoos, de Vre could at first glance be viewed as a hipster who has invaded the neighbourhood, but sit down with him for an hour over a drink – tequila is his tipple – and you soon learn he's passionate about the old East Village in general and this bar in particular.

The bar was originally owned by its namesake, a tough Ukrainian woman named Sophie Polny. It was a working class immigrant bar before the artists, musicians and punks moved into the area and gave the place the unpretentious, eclectic mix of clientele it still enjoys today.

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"Every great bar in New York is unique because of its regulars," says de Vre. "Sophie's is that place for me. I go to a lot of bars in this neighbourhood, like Manitoba's, The Horseshoe and B-Side, but Sophie's is home."

It's those regulars he wanted to celebrate in his book, taking portraits from behind the bar while juggling drinks orders. He flicks through the book and talks about the locals – musician Fiona Silver and her tiny dog Winston; local handyman Buddy, who never drinks water or eats vegetables. He points out a picture of a couple and their infant daughter. "I introduced them to each other," says de Vre. "And I'm now their little girl's godfather."

He then stops at a photo of a kind-faced black man in a beanie, with a beer in front of him.

"That's Count Slima," says de Vre. "He's the friendliest guy in the world. He greets every person who comes in here. He's worked at Two Boots Pizza forever. There's also a photo of him over there behind the bar. He plays pool and never lines up a shot, but makes every shot he takes. And that's his poetry tacked to the ceiling."

For de Vre and the people he's come to call friends at Sophie's, a dive bar is a special place.

"It has to have a jukebox and a pool table. It has to be not too expensive. The bar staff have to like the customers. On the other hand, we like customers who know what they want to drink. Everyone who works here takes such pride in the place. It's like a family. I keep the place cleaner than my apartment."

De Vre still brings his camera to work every Tuesday and he's still taking photos. There are plans for a second book. He's not going anywhere.

"I always tell people that even if I won the lottery I would still work my Tuesday shift at Sophie's," he says.

TRIP NOTES

Barry Divola travelled as a guest of Brand USA, The Hoxton, 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge and Hotel Hugo.

MORE

traveller.com.au/new-york

visittheusa.com.au

nycgo.com

Read about Kyle de Vre, his photography and his book at kylekarl.com

FLY

Virgin Australia and Delta Air Lines together offer a total of 25 weekly flights to Los Angeles, from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. From Los Angeles, Delta offers up to 10 daily flights to New York-JFK. See virginaustralia.com and delta.com

DRINK

Sophie's, 509 E5th Street between Avenues A & B.

STAY

The Hoxton is a new outpost of the stylish English hotel brand in the heart of Brooklyn's Williamsburg. See thehoxton.com/new-york/williamsburg/hotels

1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge is an eco-friendly hotel in DUMBO with spectacular views of the Brooklyn Bridge. See 1hotels.com/brooklyn-bridge

Hotel Hugo is a boutique hotel on the western edge of SoHo, an easy walk to TriBeCa and the West Village. See hotelhugony.com

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