The "early-bird drinker" dilemma
Imagining the politics and potential of day-drinking
Past midnight one recent weekend, your fearless Fingers editor found himself sitting in Bamboo Café, a comfortably shabby neighborhood joint in Richmond, Virginia that pours doubles by default, marveling at the these-days-unfamiliar feeling of drinking late. It felt like we were pushing up against dawn even though it was only 1:30am or so. “I can’t believe we used to do this all the time,” I told my wife, who quickly pointed out that when we lived in New York City, it was fairly routine for us to stay out drinking much later—often right up to, or straight through last call at 4am. Of course, we were in our mid-twenties then, and our mid-thirties now, and the intervening 10 years have multiplied the severity of our hangovers by at least that order of magnitude. Such is the nature of aging, I guess.
That wee-hour outing in Richmond was an exception to the personal rule I’ve been trying to hold myself to since roughly the start of the pandemic: if you’re going to get drunk, you’d better do it early, because the hangover only gets worse the later you go. This is hardly groundbreaking stuff, I realize. But my recent focus on drinking early (albeit still often) to thin the next morning’s fog has made me curious whether such a shift is the function of my own decline, or some broader generational and/or pandemic-induced tendency. As Carrie Bradshaw, the patron saint of hard-drinking, navel-gazing columnists everywhere, might put it: “Are we drinking late less often because we’re getting old? Or is it just getting old to stay out drinking late?”
It certainly feels like the latter, and I’m not the only one who’s noticed. “[T]he once-geriatric stigma of being an early bird is gone. Or perhaps everyone’s become more geriatric,” muses reporter Rachel Sugar in a T: Magazine story about how the dinner rush in the city that never sleeps has recently crept forward to accommodate earlier bed times. (“For New Yorkers, 6 p.m. Is the New 8 p.m.,” the headline proclaims.) Elsewhere in the Gray Lady Journalistic Universe, the metro desk’s Dodai Stewart laments the newly curtailed hours of iconic NYC joints like like Veselka and Wo Hop that used to serve around the clock. Hungry last-callers were a critical customer base for these 24/7 businesses (at Katz’s Delicatessen, which is still open at all hours, they refer to the run-up to last call as “the calm before the storm), suggesting that there may be a dip in late-night drinkers that corresponds to the newly reduced restaurant hours.
Then again: NYC is a leading indicator on restaurant and bar behavior nationally, but it’s hardly representative of the country as a whole. Plus, reporters’ observations about restaurants do not an airtight argument about drinking habits make. Data could, though I’m not aware of any comprehensive national metric that shows when Americans are drinking. Still, a recent analysis from the beer industry’s most popular social platform sheds some light on the situation, and the upshot is—yes, some of us are definitely drinking earlier than we used to.