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Authenticity on Tap

Illustration by Ivy Sanders Schneider

“Brunch hasn’t worked out for us, so we do lunch,” says Rick Seiden, founder of the New Haven bar and restaurant Three Sheets. Ed Turschmann, who co-owns the establishment with Seiden, pipes in to clarify. “The menu is the same.” The two men exchange a brief look, as though they have given away the game: what separates their bar from its peers is not offering but attitude. Box 63 does brunch a few blocks down. So does Barracuda. But although a customer inclined towards day drinking can get a burger and a beer around noon on a Sunday at Three Sheets, no one’s going to call it brunch.

Both burly and Connecticut-born, Seiden and Turschmann look like the kind of middle-aged men you wouldn’t want to fight, least of all in their own bar. When they founded Three Sheets in December 2013 after the previous tenant, Elm Bar, closed up shop, they pledged to bring back the spirit of an older neighborhood institution: Rudy’s Bar and Grille, which occupied their location at 372 Elm Street for seventy-six years before moving to a new space on Chapel. “It felt like the local place that anybody could go,” Seiden says of Rudy’s. “Grad students, fishermen, people from the hospital. The place that everybody felt comfortable coming into.”

When Rudy’s changed location in 2011, it became a “gastropub”—a term, Seiden insists, that doesn’t apply to Three Sheets. “That has a completely different connotation,” he adds, when asked how his bar’s preferred label,“gastrodive,” differs. “This place still has the feel of a local dive bar, but the food that comes out of it is far superior.”

With its blue and red neon sign, grimy brick exterior, and dark-tinted windows, Three Sheets certainly looks like a dive. Seiden and Turschmann, who were both employed in the commercial fishing industry for decades, chose the name from an old sailor’s phrase for drunkenness—“three sheets to the wind.” Above an open doorway, a Pabst Blue Ribbon sign advertises “COLD BEER.” There are no TVs.

When I walk into Three Sheets on a weekday night, the atmosphere feels almost utopic. Seiden claims that Three Sheets draws both the “suit and tie crowd” and “the punk rock crowd.” Sure enough, I run into both as I sit at the bar. Next to me, a man with tattoos and gauges reads All The Light We Cannot See over a pint of stout. Two students in Yale apparel are doing homework on laptops at a side table.

although a customer inclined towards day drinking can get a burger and a beer around noon on a Sunday at Three Sheets, no one’s going to call it brunch.

But other elements of the bar seem to contradict the owners’ claims to non-pretension. An illuminated screen shows Chef Kam Tom’s daily kitchen specials, which today feature something called a “butter burger” (twelve dollars, with beef from Four Mile River farm in Old Lyme, Connecticut). A wall-to-wall chalkboard, decked out with illustrations in the style of traditional military tattoos, displays an ever-changing slate of draught beers, most of which cost upwards of $6—steep for a neighborhood like Dwight, and for an establishment that calls itself a dive. It’s unclear, as Three Sheets enters its third year of operations, whether it is defying the winds of change or sailing on them.

When Seiden and Turschmann were regulars at the original Rudy’s in the early nineties, New Haven’s commercial district looked different. On Broadway alone, you could catch a movie at York Square Cinemas, an independent theater, or browse for records at Cutler’s after grabbing a cheap meal at the Yankee Doodle. Now, your options are more limited—want to hit the Apple Store this afternoon? How about J. Crew?

The bar scene is different now, too. In 2013, the upscale pub Ordinary replaced Richter’s Bar, a Chapel Street dive that closed in 2011 after twenty-eight years. Last year, outcry over the closure of the Anchor—a College Street staple for over eighty years—led to a July 2015 proposal to reopen the bar under new management. The New Haven Register reports that the new Anchor will rebrand itself as an “upscale cocktail bar,” a far cry from its origins as a dive.

Although Three Sheets perhaps isn’t a traditional dive bar, its owners see their focus on craft beer and locally sourced food as part of their creative vision rather than the result of a city-wide trend towards the upscale. “I don’t think we’re part of that whole changing scene,” says Seiden. He prefers to think of the bar as an “off-Broadway” operation.

The bar certainly doesn’t feel upscale. “I like that Three Sheets has all this great stuff—a deep beer list, good food—but in an unpretentious space,” says Dan Michaelson ’17, a Three Sheets regular. “The bartenders are friendly, the crowd is diverse, and everyone just gets along.” In the back room, I run into Jon Stone, a local singer-songwriter who seems to be drawn to town-gown contact zones. Last year, at a WYBC-sponsored house show, Stone memorably instructed the crowd—roughly split between locals and Yalies—to “paint the floor with Yalie blood.”

Why Sea Hag? Turschmann laughs. “That’s like the Budweiser of New Haven,” he says. “If you’re a bar in New Haven and you don’t have Sea Hag…”

No such rancor tonight. He alludes to an altercation at a show at Three Sheets a few weeks back—something involving an aggressive guy in a metal band who’d put back a few too many—but he’s hesitant to get specific. He’s moving to Philadelphia in a couple days, and for now, he just wants to drink beer and play pool, to savor his last moments as an Elm City resident. Three Sheets was the obvious choice for Stone’s impromptu send-off. “It’s been real,” he’d posted on Facebook earlier that day. “I’ll be at Three Sheets tonight if you wanna hang.”

Turschmann is in charge of the draught lines. Their sixteen spouts gleam under the bar light. “Sixteen lines is good,” he estimates. “I’d rather have twenty, but it’s enough.” He prides himself on providing a diverse selection, but he makes sure one beer is always available on tap: Sea Hag, an IPA from Woodbridge, Connecticut.

Why Sea Hag? Turschmann laughs. “That’s like the Budweiser of New Haven,” he says. “If you’re a bar in New Haven and you don’t have Sea Hag…” He trails off, rolling his eyes. “It’s a great local beer,” Seiden clarifies. “Everybody knows it in town, and everybody likes it, pretty much.”

As I sip my pint of Sea Hag, I sense that Seiden’s statement resonates beyond the hoppy drink lapping at my glass’s brim. In its two and a half years at 372 Elm Street, Three Sheets has carved out its own niche within New Haven’s fluctuating nightlife. And yet, Seiden and Turschmann’s hopes for a truly cross-class clientele elude them—it’s hard to imagine that the people drinking at Three Sheets represent most of New Haven. After all, a Sea Hag still runs you six dollars.

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