2023 Village Awardee: Monster Bar, 80 Grove Street
Village Preservation is very proud to honor the Monster Bar at 80 Grove Street as a Village Awardee in 2023. Join us in recognizing them and these five other worthy awardees at Village Preservation’s Annual Meeting and Village Awards on Tuesday, June 13 at 6pm at Cooper Union’s Historic Great Hall. Registration is free and open to all!
These days Dan Tobey runs The Monster Bar, which was opened over forty years ago in 1982 at its current location by Charlie Rice and his late partner, Joe Scialo. Rice and Scialo had previously operated restaurants/bars also called The Monster in Key West, FL, and Cherry Grove, Fire Island, NY as early as 1971.
Joe Scialo was the son of Italian immigrants and a native New Yorker. He was born at Saint Vincents hospital in 1935, baptized at Saint Anthony’s Church on Houston Street, and lived with his family in Little Italy on Bayard Street. He attended local public schools before entering the Navy as a radio operator at the age of 18. He left the service in 1957, and with help from the G.I. Bill, attended beauty school while selling lunches by cart at the Empire State Building and making gyros at a takeout restaurant near City Hall. He stayed in the salon business for about 10 years until the late 1960s, when he decided he needed a major life change. That’s when he got into the restaurant business.
Joe Scialo opened the original Monster, named after a mythological Griffin Sea Serpent, as a Fire Island bar in 1971 and followed up with a restaurant in a Key West annex in 1975. A large, carved wooden representation of the Griffin Sea Serpent is featured in the window of The Monster and as a logo on the T-shirts sported by the staff of the bar.
In 1982, Scalio learned there was a nightclub near Sheridan Square that was up for rent. The site had an illustrious story history. It was home to a legendary Spanish restaurant called El Chico, which served tapas and drinks on the main floor and featured flamenco dancers downstairs. Jose Greco danced there, and Ingrid Bergman, Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, and Roy Orbison dined there. Spanish themed murals painted by the owners remain intact on The Monster’s wall to this day. In the 1960s, the space became El Avram, which featured Mediterranean food and belly dancers before switching to kosher and Israeli cuisine. Joe sold the flagship Monster location in Fire Island in 1984. It wasn’t until 1985 that he was able to expand the Sheridan Square building by buying the corner space that was formerly a bookstore. That’s when he tore down the wall and widened the bar, creating the space that remains today. The Manhattan Monster started as an eatery, but that was short-lived. People wanted to dance, and the space soon transformed to a bar and dance floor.
Joe Scialo constantly contributed his time, money, and energy to fighting HIV and AIDS. Staff members with HIV and AIDS were allowed to keep working for as long as they wanted and were able.
Today, The Monster consists of a multi-level gathering space for the LGBTQ+ community and their friends with a mix of vintage Lalique chandeliers and the famous mirrored staircase. There’s a piano bar on the first floor and a nightclub dancefloor downstairs, which have (according to the proprietors) attracted celebrities from Andy Warhol to Rupaul over the years.
The Monster has been popular with an ever-expanding and diverse LGBTQ+ audience, adapting over the years to meet the varying musical and dance tastes of different ages and groups. Many regulars populate the bar on the first floor during the afternoons, earning what they deem the most desirable seats over time. There are the disco “tea dances” which have been offered for 35 years on Sunday afternoons in the dance space in the basement and the “Music at The Monster” series, which was started as recently as 2022 in the room that was formerly a bookstore into which The Monster expanded in 1985. Entertainment ranges from all-female country-rock-indie bands to drag performers, DJs, and more.
Part of that “more”for which the Monster is mist renowned is its piano bar, the star of which for the past 31 years has been Martin St. Lawrence. The piano bar operates from Tuesday to Friday, with two pianists playing shifts from 6 PM to 11 PM and then 11 PM to 4 AM. The piano bar also has its set of regulars as well as newcomers.
The dancehall downstairs offers a show of some kind every night, featuring everything from drag shows to bingo night to the Sunday “tea dances” to cabaret offerings of Broadway classic songs. Every DJ brings their own style to the participants. Entrance to The Monster dancehall is free except for a cover charge on Friday and Saturday nights.
The Monster has been an anchor in Sheridan Square for generations, providing a safe haven for gays and lesbians and anyone else who wants to go there since its opening over 40 years ago. They are proud and protective of two Spanish murals, as well as a wall of vertical mirrored panels that line the staircase down to the dancehall. The Monster is known for its friendly vibe and acceptance of myriad “ways of being” in this world, with a clientele that’s diverse in terms of age, race, gender, local/visitor, and myriad other qualities.
This corner of Greenwich Village has been through and seen a lot of change since the early 1980s, and overcome a lot of obstacles. During the covid pandemic, the owners went out of their way to create a safe place to maintain community, first with window service, then with well-maintained outside structures and attractive sidewalk tables, and eventually a welcome back to indoor service, with respect to its neighbors.
Few businesses in our neighborhood have lasted this long or served as such a welcoming space for so many. For these reasons and many others, we’re thrilled to honor the Monster Bar with our Village Award on June 13. We hope you’ll join us as we do and honor the five other fantastic local businesses, people, and organizations that will be celebrated that evening. Find out more and register to attend here.