Take Me to Your Spot: Nolita Dirtbag @ Bernie's
Munching on Brooklyn comfort food with downtown NYC's most illustrious meme lord
Welcome to Take Me to Your Spot, a series with a simple premise: food, a fascinating person, and the restaurant connecting them. In each installment, an interesting New Yorker (as well as folks from further afield) takes us to their favorite restaurant—a place where they rank as a true regular—and shows us the ropes.
From where he sits in the front booth at Bernie’s, Alex Hartman—aka Nolita Dirtbag, Instagram’s preeminent downtown meme lord—looks happy with his dinner decision. Not his meal (we’ve yet to order), but the spot itself — this low-key neighborhood joint on the corner of Driggs and Lorimer that’s perhaps the perfect amalgamation of American nostalgia, right down to the checkered tablecloths and Tiffany lamp pendants. To be fair, Hartman had considered other restaurants that are perhaps more on brand. Kikki’s and Lovely Day were quickly debated, before he texted me to admit that he couldn’t quite claim regular status at either. For a guy who makes a living skewering downtown culture, such an admission felt oddly sincere.
“Usually, I come here with three of my friends, and we’ll sit right here,” Hartman says in a baritone that belies his age (a still wet behind the ears 26). “We come two, maybe three times a month.”
Tonight, Hartman’s clad in a gray hoodie, his brown hair close cropped at the sides. Rather than the type of hypebeast fits splashed across his Instagram account, he mostly prefers no frills athletic gear, which he usually wears to the basketball court or the gym, where he recently broke 220 on the bench — “fuck yeah,” he adds with more irony than pride. Aside from our eating and drinking, this evening’s only athleticism consisted of Hartman riding a Citi Bike here from his place in Bed-Stuy. Upon arrival, Bernie’s manager (and Hartman’s friend) Oliver Klein sets us up with a pair of dirty martinis at the corner of the joint’s handsome oak bar before escorting us to our table.
“I think we just do the Caesar,” Hartman tells me, eying the menu. “Plus the chips and dip and the baked clams. Two appetizers and a salad. And then I feel like, if this is your first time here, you got to try the cheeseburger.” He considers the other entrees for a beat. “I mean, it may be too much, but the half vinegar chicken…let's do that, too. It's like my favorite.”
Dinner is ordered. Our martinis refreshed. Hartman leans back in the booth. We get into it. It being the ten by ten block radius across the river comprising Nolita and the dirtbag denizens he lampoons.
“Some people think of it as wearing Madhappy and a trucker hat, or a black tank top and a chain and some sort of niche hat and Oakley glasses,” he explains, answering my question re: what constitutes dirtbag style? “It means different things for different people. It could just be a finance bro who wears ALD on the weekends.”
“But it's all very brand-specific, right?” I ask.
Hartman nods. “Yeah. Brand, location, consumption habits, essentially.” He lifts his martini, sips the meniscus. “Everyone's always been influenced by what they buy, what they wear. It's a representation of themselves. But now people have a lot more choices, and that makes it funnier because you can get very micro with your choices.”
Like those ALD-loving finance bros larping as downtown dirtbags, Hartman was a bit of a weekend warrior as well. After college, when he first moved back East and into the city, he worked a real estate job. His mother lived at Sutton Place (his parents are divorced, and he has little relationship with his father), and, during the summer of 2021, much of his time downtown consisted of meeting a buddy who managed the Noah store on Mulberry. They’d grab drinks, and Hartman found himself skewering the very specific brand of style he saw. The @nolitadirtbag Instagram started shortly thereafter. Since, he’s amassed some 100k followers, racked up profiles in GQ and The Washington Post, and counts a rag tag crew of blue check celebs like Diplo, B.J. Novak, and former pornstar Mia Khalifa as fans. Brands came calling too, from upscale sex toy companies to CPG players to Puma. Today, Nolita Dirtbag is a full-time gig, one that Hartman plans to expand beyond the meme account — newsletters, maybe a TikTok gameshow with “Balenciaga Bros” and “Samba Girlies” as contestants.
“Very specific observations are just what my brain goes to,” he says, while at the same time admitting he has a soft spot for more broad humor (he loved the Shane Gillis Netflix special).
As we dig into the dip—“it’s just, like, a pure sour cream and onion; like, it's so good”—I tell Hartman that I was surprised by tonight’s restaurant choice. I figured, perhaps naively, that he’d choose something in Nolita, or environs nearby.
He shrugs. Like his choice in attire, his own consumption habits—be it fashion or food—can skew more comfort than cool.
“I mean, I love Malatesta in the West Village, which is like one of those places where you walk out of there and it's like you didn't spend $26 on a pasta.” He laughs, a self-deprecating and self-aware chuckle. “Ok, so you spent $18. I’m also a big Hillstone fan. It's the perfect amount of, like…yeah, I want to go chill with Long Island moms for, like, a couple hours.”
Surely there’s some hotspot in his restaurant repertoire, I ask.
“Bar Pitti,” he admits. “It’s fun to go there and just pay a premium.”
I say something about Wes Anderson having written at least one of his movies there — a bit of trivia I picked up at a New Yorker Festival talk nearly two decades ago.
“Oh yeah?” Hartman says, humoring me for a moment as he considers a chip. He laughs. “Boring! Who cares about that? All I know is Justin Bieber was in there two weeks ago.”
He talks about the video that surfaced of the pop star, laughs at the sneaky way the person tried to shoot it. For a moment, I wonder if Hartman actually cares about Bieber and celebrities in general. But that’s not the appeal, I realize; rather, it’s simply the show of it all, this endless and absurd online/offline pageant we all live in now.
“Oh, and Mars 2112,” he adds, referring to the now shuttered sci-fi themed tourist trap that once occupied 33,000-square-feet on West 51st. “My parents threw my eighth birthday there. It was kind of scary, but it's the most visceral memory of me and all my siblings of just, like, getting in. Did you ever go?” he asks, then laughs considering our age difference. “Obviously, it'd be weird if you had, but as an eight year old it was crazy. You walked down, and you got into a fake spaceship with hydraulics underneath. It would do all these crazy things, and then the doors would open up on the other side and you got out and walked in as if you’d just traveled to Mars. Oh, it was amazing.”
Of this Hartman is serious. I detect no irony. We’ll call it his Rosebud moment. But before we can go further down the rabbit hole of sincerity, James Harris—co-host of menswear podcast Throwing Fits—walks in.
Having spotted Hartman from outside, Harris is here to say what’s up. Worlds collide, quick, easy talk follows. Harris recounts having spent a few days with Jonah Weiner and Erin Wylie, co-founders of style and design newsletter Blackbird Spylpane, who were in town from the West Coast. I picture the overlapping circles of their Venn Diagram, equal parts style and sendup, online and offline, sincerity and irony, all of it coming together, all of it forming this gray area that is the strata of life now for these micro media empires.
Hartman slices through our burger — a double cheese smash concoction with fries that is delicious in a very IRL kind of way. He does the same with the vinegar chicken.
“So the little peppers here go really nice,” he says. “Want me to just sort of plop a little over the top?”
We order beers, a round of Bud Heavies.
“Yeah, boys night!” Hartman says, both endorsing and mocking our behavior. A former Bernie Bro, who would still “vote for him ten times out of ten,” Hartman has grown weary of how serious everything is, from politics to the navel-gazing of the downtown New York scene, be it the extremely online world of Dimes Square or points slightly further afield and less meta. “This idea that you're at the forefront of some sort of greater happening going on is just fake. It's not like I'm not a think piece guy. But what's more interesting to me is getting a big following, laughing, and monetizing.”
We pay the check. Finish our beers. What about this place, I want to know. What is it about Bernie’s. Why’s it his spot?
“It's just, like, very easy, reliable, consistent, nice to sit in,” Hartman says.
Cigarettes are bought at a nearby Bodega. He smokes one on the corner while waiting for Bernie’s manager Oliver Klein — his ride back to Bed-Stuy instead of braving it on a Citi Bike. It’s nearly midnight. Hartman takes a drag of his Marlboro Gold.
“I would love for Mars 2112 to reopen again,” a pensive sincerity suddenly back in his voice. “That would be really nice. Because I literally think my memories are from my dreams of that fucking place.”
Blackbird Labs, Inc.