Small Business Spotlight: Up Stairs Bar

Upstairs Bar Photo by Max Rovo

Upstairs Bar. Photo by Max Rovo

Editor’s note: This profile is part of our yearlong reporting project on Small Business Survival. This story is reported and written by Max Rovo. If you’re interested in writing profiles for this project, whether you’ve lived on the Lower East Side one year or fifty years, send us an email at:

Hidden above a dimly lit doorway at 59 Canal St. is a place to sing your heart out called Up Stairs Bar (previously referred to as Swat Bar). Known for its infamous karaoke nights and artsy crowds, Up Stairs Bar has been a haven for Lower East Siders for years,  hosting underground d.j. parties and a quirky clientele.

Rena Cho, a longtime New York bartender, is the latest owner of this Chinatown bus-depot-karaoke-dive-bar. It’s been her family business for the past five years. I had the chance to catch up with Rena recently to ask her what makes Up Stairs Bar such an enduring nightlife destination. She had many stories to tell me, to say the least.

Cho came to New York from Canton, China in the 1980s with her entire family. The first place she ever lived in NYC was two blocks from the bar’s current location, so, in a way, her adult life in New York has come full circle, and she couldn’t be more satisfied about it. Cho speaks with the confidence of someone who has seen it all.

Up Stairs Bar operates almost like a modern day speakeasy. To enter, you must climb a flight of stairs to a nondescript doorway. Once inside, you’ll find that the red lights create an immediate intimacy, both cozy and seductive. On busy weekend nights, you will likely have to push your way through the standing crowd to order a drink.

What draws so many to Up Stairs Bar? After all, how did they even find the place? Rena said, “Our bar attracts new customers by word of mouth. And now that a lot of foreigners stay in the neighborhood for five or six months, they go back to Europe and then their friends visit the next summer.”

While the bar has an international reputation, it is important to note that many local artists and gallery owners are regulars. Cho tells me that various groups and businesses will frequently rent out the space to host their company events since “Up Stairs Bar is a place where everyone can feel comfortable.”

Along with local heroes, some A-listers have spent time here as well. Actress Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha, No Strings Attached and the Arthur remake) is a fan. She celebrated her 30th birthday party here.

However, Cho has never let herself or her staff off the hook for denying entrance to the pop star Drake. Apparently one night, Drake trudged up the stairs with his posse, but was turned away by the bouncer (Drake wasn’t catting ID). “We googled him after, and realized, ‘oh, my,’ we just denied Drake a drink at our bar,” lamented Cho.

Besides karaoke, Up Stairs Bar is known for their great weekday Happy Hour. From 4 p.m. – 7 p.m., domestic beers are $3, imported are $4, well drinks are $5, and beer & a shot combos are $7 and $8 respectively.

When I asked Cho what makes for a good karaoke singer, she laughed and told me, “you have to feel it from here (pointing at her heart), you can’t force it.” She insisted that “Screaming is bad. If you scream nobody likes it, and it hurts our ears. When that happens, I go over to the singer and tell them to stop it.” Most of the time, she said, that’s enough to appease irritated customers.

Cho also told me that over the years she has been a psychologist for boozers from all backgrounds. It comes with the territory, obviously, and with an atmosphere like this, it encourages people to let their guard down.

As the new (and very fancy) hotel in the Jarmulowsky Bank Building continues construction across the street, Cho is optimistic that business will only grow stronger in the future. “Even if people stay in a nice hotel, they’re not going to want to drink at the hotel bar. They will want to go someplace where the locals hang out. So, where are they going to go? Right here.”

Max Rovo is a freelance copywriter and journalist based in New York.  You’re way more likely to find him at a concert near you than a yoga session.