During the worst of the pandemic lockdown, I depression-bought two types of clothing: sweatsuits, obviously, and increasingly shiny, skimpy outfits that I was convinced would be my new look once I emerged. Before the pandemic, I had never been much for the club, but suddenly I yearned not just for a party, but for a celebration. I envisioned myself shimmering in sequins on a dance floor, eating oysters on a bustling sidewalk, laughing with friends over summery spritzes while a glamorous pool party raged on just out of view. My most played song of 2020 was “Disco Inferno.”
Apparently, I wasn’t the only one envisioning some feverish mashup of Studio 54 and happy hour in Milan. Look around, and you’ll notice a new generation of bars decked out in velvet and rich jewel tones, metallics, cut glass and mirror balls. There is likely a DJ booth, or at least a playlist that makes you want to leave your drink and dance. But these are not just clubs. Within these bars, you’ll find the trappings of retro European glamour, of Italian aperitivo culture filtered through the prism of nostalgia. The cocktails are bitter and bright, and often with a lower ABV than the Martinis people can’t stop pounding. They are meant to be savored over secretive conversations and maybe some salty snacks. Sometimes, a pizza oven doubles as a disco ball. The age of disco aperitivo is upon us.
The spiritual godmother of the aesthetic is probably Nitecap, a Lower East Side bar helmed by Natasha David, author of the recently released Drink Lightly. As she writes in her book, an aperitif is “a cocktail that encourages interaction and thoughtful debate, that lifts the spirits or comforts a broken heart. It is a tumbler joyfully overflowing and topped with a plump and juicy orange slice.” At Nitecap, David paired this with disco, all with the ultimate goal of transporting patrons to a place where they would feel more connected to others and to themselves. “How could you not feel some kind of glimmer of hope when you see this sparkly light?” she says of the power of the disco ball. “It’s this unifying moment, it creates this energy that makes you want to feel close to other people.”
Though Nitecap closed in 2020, it was clearly onto something. Set to open in New York in early July, Iain Griffiths’ Midnight Cafe is one of the latest projects to embrace the disco aperitivo model, with a menu of aperitivo classics set to a soundtrack of 1970s Italian disco. “All the trends of people drinking nonalcoholic beverages or low-ABV cocktails, I think people want to actually go out and dance,” says Brice Jones, one of the owners of Ciao Ciao, an Italian-inspired disco that opened in April of this year in Brooklyn. Jones took over the space from the previous tenant, JJ’s Hideaway, which was famous for its light-up dance floor. “We wanted to build a concept around that dance floor,” Jones said, as well as the exposed brick and beams in the space that made everything feel a little gritty and old: a little Saturday Night Fever juxtaposed with a highbrow drinks program that 2001 Odyssey, the bar in the film, never had. What Jones’ team came up with was a vision of “a discotheque in a back alleyway of Rome in the ’70s,” with a menu of crostini and other salty, bready snacks meant to complement the light drinks and dancing. “People snacking, having a spritz or some kind of low-ABV Negroni in the afternoon, I think that’s what we were really looking to do,” said Jones.
So far, it’s working. And it represents a dramatic shift in the status quo of the city’s nightlife. “Growing up in the industry, you knew that the more people danced, the less money you made,” says Jones, noting that New York’s cabaret laws made dance clubs difficult to open and run. The repeal of those laws in 2017 made it easier, but still, it’s hard to dance and drink at the same time, and only the latter makes bars money. Today, however, people want to do a little of it all: drink, eat, dance, without too much of any one. “I think that’s the culture we were trying to find, this community, and more [of an] experience than just simply sitting down at a restaurant and eating meals for six hours,” Jones says.
At first blush, the trend seems deeply tied to pandemic-induced restlessness, and the collective desire to be in places that look nothing like our living rooms. “I think that people want to go out and have a different level of service or experience, and people are willing to travel for it,” said Med Abrous, co-founder of the Panorama Room, which opened at the Graduate Hotel on New York’s Roosevelt Island last September. The mauve velvet–bedecked bar is inspired by the shapes and colors of Italian Futurism, and on top of a menu of caviar, oysters and Italian cocktails, there’s a DJ booth designed by Daft Punk’s creative director. “It’s in some way our nod to the disco ball without having a disco ball,” Abrous says.
Driving this trend, too, may just be good old-fashioned nostalgia, which the drinks industry always runs on. The combination of glitzy disco and late-afternoon easy drinking is a testament to how any play at nostalgia is now happening in rapid time, and often folding in on itself. “It’s a new sort of old,” writes Jason Diamond of the current nightlife scene. “It’s not people going out and trying to recreate partying that looks or sounds or feels like a specific time, it’s a mix. A mish-mosh of everything that came before is all available to you on any given night of the week.”
Superfrico in Las Vegas takes this power clashing of trends to an extreme. The restaurant within the Cosmopolitan hotel, created by theater company Spiegelworld, describes itself as an “Italian American psychedelic” experience. That means a dinner menu of Italian American twists like beef cheek ravioli, chicken parm and “tableside mozzarella stretched before your very eyes.” The cocktail menu, developed by “principal pourer” Leo Robitschek, is heavy on ingredients like amari, vermouth and sherry, and the overall experience combines art, performance and a vinyl-only DJ. Ross Mollison of Spiegelworld says he wanted to create an alternative to the typical clubby restaurants in Vegas. “I think people really want to be with other people, and sit around big tables of food and have fun, and have the feeling of something that’s new,” he says.
A place where you can flirt over a cocktail, eat a plate of pasta, interact with a circus or sing along to your favorite dance songs is inherently intriguing. But the history of disco reveals another reason why, at this moment, so many are particularly captivated by sparkling lights, dancing and drinking just enough to feel a light buzz. In his 2012 book about the intersecting music scenes in New York in the mid-’70s, Love Goes to Buildings on Fire, Will Hermes outlines what made disco so special. The first discos, he explains, were not sleek, glittering clubs, but house parties cobbled together by outcasts who brought a sense of sensuality and freedom to the party. Alcohol was not the primary draw. The parties were BYO, and yes other intoxicants were available, but it was all in service of “the elusive element known as ‘vibe.’”
The music and the parties were not about getting trashed, they were about holding on to your community in a world that was trying to tear the most vulnerable apart. “What many people don’t think about are the politics of disco,” writes David in her book. “Disco was a celebration of self-expression and inclusion. It was a genre that celebrated Black pride, women’s liberation, and civil rights, and that served as the anthem of the Stonewall uprising.” Disco was always imbued with a sense of spiteful celebration.
Today, as trans rights are under attack, abortion access is on the chopping block and every day seems to bring new horrors, once again, we’re turning to glitter and glitz, to dancing and luxury, to greater connection. Of course, some of these places continue to be available only to the most privileged, distilling the aesthetics of the marginalized into a party for the rich. But at their best, these spaces tap into the feeling that the world may be closing in on you, but here you are, still alive, deserving of flavor and sweetness and light. There is no cocktail too delicious, no dance floor too raucous, nothing too good for those who need that the most. The party should be for everyone.