Food & Drinks

The Longtime Regular of New York’s Billymark’s West Dive Bar | PUNCH

Sitting at his favorite stool at the bar at Billymark’s West, Bob Rizzo stops mid-conversation and smiles, announcing in his old-school Brooklyn accent, “Oh, this one was one of my songs,” as Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” kicks in on the jukebox.

As regular as the tolling bell from the nearby Church of the Holy Apostles, for the past 16 years Rizzo’s schedule prioritizes an every-other-day afternoon appointment at Billymark’s. He’s not cut in the mold of the gruff regular who wants nothing to do with newcomers; instead, Rizzo is more of an ambassador—to the bar and to New York in general—and is genuinely curious when he asks those sitting next to him, What brought you to Billymark’s?

Billymark’s is a sprawling Chelsea dive bar on the corner of 29th Street and Ninth Avenue that’s open from 8 a.m. to 4 a.m., 365 days a year. The original venue opened in 1956 and, since 1999, has been under the supervision of brothers Mark and Billy Penza, whose late father, Hank, was the owner of legendary East Village dive Mars Bar until it was forced to close in 2011. While the brothers Penza have cleaned up the iconic graffiti-tagged façade and plastered the bathrooms with a fresh coat of paint, the décor remains in the style of what Billy Penza calls “things we like.” Among those things: dozens of photos of The Beatles, framed gold and silver records, branded beer signs, boxing gloves, posters of random ’90s movies like Dogma and Léon: The Professional, an American flag, a headshot of Elvis Costello and a Knicks clock, to name just a few.

Rizzo became a Billymark’s regular by convenience, or, as they say in real estate parlance: location, location, location. The native New Yorker has lived in Chelsea since 1978, and for the past two decades has lived across the street from the bar with his husband. “I’m Brooklyn, born and bred, grew up in Gravesend, close to Coney Island,” says Rizzo. “It explains my accent. It explains my culture. I moved to Manhattan when I was 23 but at that age you’re already baked, you’re done.” Rizzo retired 12 years ago after stints as a court stenographer, a secretary at Con Ed (“I was the only male secretary at the time,” he says) and a departmental manager at a corporate law firm. Most recently, he occupied his time as a professional dog walker. His go-to drink order is an Irish whiskey and soda. But in his early days of visiting Billymark’s, he was a vodka and cranberry guy, so much so that the bartenders coined his order the BGB (“Big Gay Bob”). “People would come in and say, ‘I’ll take a BGB,’” Rizzo recalls.

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From the balcony of his nearby high-rise apartment, Rizzo had been afforded an expansive view of the Hudson River. But over the years, as “those big giant Godzilla buildings” kept being built, his field of vision has been eclipsed bit by bit; now a backdrop of towering concrete and glass has permanently obstructed his river view. But as much as New York City continues to change, Rizzo feels comfortable in the neighborhood—so long as Billymark’s remains.

Do you remember your first time coming to Billymark’s West?
I’ve lived across the street for 23 years, but for the first seven years I never stopped in. It was always there and sort of had a reputation. But after work one night, I was walking down Ninth Avenue in my suit and tie and briefcase and I didn’t feel like going home yet or stopping by a liquor store, so I walked in to sit down and have a drink.

What made you become a regular here?
It happened really quick. After the first visit, I felt so comfortable. It’s very close and it just evolved. The first three times Billy was always working, and then I came in one evening and it was Mark. I felt comfortable there right away.

What do you love about this bar?
The atmosphere. You know the bartenders; the bartenders know you. And then you start to know the people from the neighborhood who are coming all the time or people who work nearby but might live in Jersey or Brooklyn, and you just start knowing the regulars. I think the big hook for me is that it lets me be independent. If I want to go out, I don’t need to call my friends and say, “Do you feel like hanging out?” and figure out what day and what time. I can just walk in here and be comfortable. And if nobody else is here, I’ll be talking to the bartender.

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How often can we find you here?
I would say every other day. Like many, the pandemic took my drinking level up a little bit, but I was at home on my balcony. But I like my drinks, so I can’t really blame the pandemic. [Laughs.].

What’s your favorite time to come to the bar?
Afternoons. Early in, early out.

Do you have a set routine?
No, but what happens frequently is I’ll plan to stop in for an hour then go home. Sometimes that works, but then someone else comes in you know or you meet some new people or someone you haven’t seen in a long time. And then I stay. And then I get yelled at when I go home. [Laughing.]

What’s your go-to drink?
Currently a whiskey and soda. Jameson. Sometimes Billy will make it with Tullamore Dew.

Do you mix it up or drink the same thing?
Currently a whiskey and soda. Jameson. Sometimes Billy will make it with Tullamore Dew.

What makes a dive bar a dive bar?
It’s never fancy-looking. It’s a place that provides a level of comfort right off the bat when you walk in. And the people in the bar—you might meet a Wall Street broker or a junkie. And people who have never been to that dive bar come in and nine out of 10 times it’s because they’re looking for interaction. You come to a dive bar for that, not a fancy-pants bar.

What is your favorite feature of the actual bar?
My comfort level. That’s it. It’s not the physicality of the bar. Me knowing the bar staff, them knowing me, knowing some regulars. That’s the main thing, not what it looks like.

Do you generally talk to people you don’t know who sit next to you at the bar?
Yes. I always ask people, “What brought you to Billymark’s?” Most people are visiting New York and they want to go to a real dive bar. So I start talking to people and sometimes it’s engaging and you’re happy you started talking to them, and sometimes you want to cut your ears off. Show me a picture of your dog on your phone, sure, but don’t me show me 20 pictures of your dog.

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What are your Top 3 Go-To Plays on the jukebox?
I can think more of bands than particular songs. Rolling Stones, Creedence Clearwater Revival—I love “Susie Q,” that’s a go-to. I like a lot of old disco. I’ll play three Donna Summer songs in a row and Billy will say, “Bob, did you play those?” and I’m like, “Come on, it’s fucking Donna Summer!”

Do you have a favorite bar other than the one you’re in right now?
No. I’m a loyalist.

Is there a hierarchy among the regulars here?
All the regulars have their own thing. Where they sit, who they talk to, what they order. But the regulars all know each other and talk to each other.

What makes a regular a good regular?
You behave. You’re not a nasty drunk. If I’m not in a good mood, I don’t go out. If I’m out and I come here, then it means I’m in a good mood. Some people go out when they’re in a bad mood and they have a couple drinks and then it gets worse, and I’m like, “Why the fuck did you come out tonight?” Stay home if you’re miserable.

What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re not hanging out here?
I need to find something else to do [laughs], like go back to dog walking, but otherwise I’m home reading or watching TV. I read a lot of crap fiction. Right now, I’m reading a series about witches. Sixteen-year-old girls probably like this series, but I just want an escape and it’s fun. And if the author is prolific, I like that. If there’s 12 books in a series, I’m in.

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