67 Orange Is a Harlem Cocktail Bar Rooted in Resilience and Legacy

Inspired by the past, this craft cocktail mainstay has dodged many obstacles on its path to success.

Owner of 67 Orange Street, Karl Franz Williams
Owner of 67 Orange Street, Karl Franz Williams | Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Owner of 67 Orange Street, Karl Franz Williams | Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

In a city filled with bars, 67 Orange Street in Harlem stands out as a pioneering craft cocktail destination that has stood the test of time.

Founded in 2008 by a Yale graduate, Karl Franz Williams, the name is a tribute to the address where one of the first Black-owned and operated bars in NYC, Almack's Dance Hall, once stood in Downtown Manhattan in the 1800s. At 67 Orange, you’ll find a speakeasy aesthetic complete with velvet curtains, a wide selection of drinks with names like Emancipation and The Color Purple, and a range of bites that all pay homage to the spirit of Harlem. The bar has overcome many obstacles including the 2008 recession and more recently, the pandemic.

Almack's Dance Hall was once located at 67 Orange Street (now Baxter Street) in the area now commonly referred to as Five Points, which was also considered America’s first slum. In its heyday, in addition to visitors like Charles Dickens and being considered the birthplace of tap dancing, the saloon attracted a diverse clientele for music and dancing, despite the growing Prohibition movement and injustices of racism and legal enslavement. Inspired by the original Almack’s, Williams saw an opportunity to transform a vacant retail space in Harlem into a community staple—thus, 67 Orange was born.

Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

For the Brooklyn native and Harlem resident, Williams began his career working at corporations like Procter & Gamble and PepsiCo, with a focus on operations, branding, product development, and innovation. After more than ten years in the corporate world, Williams combined his business acumen and devotion to NYC coffee shops by opening Society Coffee in 2005 on Frederick Douglass Blvd in Harlem (though it closed its doors in 2011 after a seven-year- run).

Years later, Williams saw an opportunity to leverage his appreciation of the burgeoning popularity of mixology and craft cocktails into a cocktail lounge. While a small community of downtown spots like Flatiron Lounge, Death and Co, and Pegu Club had already sparked a craft cocktail renaissance at the time, it remained mostly nonexistent uptown. It was then when Williams decided to expand the cocktail scene a hundred blocks north to where he was.

“This approach to bartending and drinking was not very well established in Harlem,” says Williams. “It was a huge risk, but I always felt like I wanted to bring the best to my community.” On top of that, he was facing one of the worst economic periods in modern history with the financial crisis of 2008. “I was opening a business and investing a large amount at a time where the markets are collapsing and development projects have completely fallen out.”

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After its debut, 67 Orange became a hit, winning recognition in publications like The New York Times and The New Yorker. “We were doing something very avant-garde,” says Williams, “and the bar was a local way to bring a strong culinary approach to bartending.”

Williams always saw the potential in his neighborhood, and believed investing in 67 Orange and Society Coffee would be revolutionary. Though the Great Recession turned out to be the challenging factor as development projects stalled and people began shifting their focus to going out downtown instead, Williams found a solution.

Together with a small army of local business owners, they came to the joint conclusion that they needed to collectively promote their neighborhood. In 2009, nine of them started Harlem Park to Park, an organization focused on honoring and enriching Harlem’s culture and supporting local merchants. Today, Harlem Park to Park is made up of over 250 members and Williams remains on the Board as Vice Chairperson as he continues to support and advocate for businesses in the community.

Though Williams was able to successfully combat the financial difficulties of the 2008 downturn, more recently, the endless challenges brought on by Covid-19 retested him. Thankfully, Williams was able to take previous lessons on survival and perseverance and apply them during the pandemic, including the collective sharing of ideas within the industry, collaborating with the NYC Hospitality Alliance, stepping up 67 Orange’s communication and social media presence, and staying nimble with programming like virtual cocktail parties, online bartending classes, and takeout cocktails when they were still allowed.

Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

After initially closing when NYC’s first mandated lockdown happened in March of 2020, 67 Orange reopened its doors by the middle of the next month and has remained in operations ever since. Here, a cocktail experience deeply rooted in complex flavor concepts is a result of Williams and his staff tasting each spirit in order to elevate the aspects they love. The constantly evolving menu is also heavily inspired by the establishment’s “chairholders,” an initiative coined to drive community involvement. A group of 67 Orange’s closest advocates and friends are allocated individual stools around the bar next to plaques featuring each of their names, and any time there’s a new menu or a tasting available, they are the first to experience it.

Crowd favorites include the Kentucky Blossom made with cinnamon and bourbon; or the What Her Melon, a refreshing mix of raspberry, cucumber, and rum. A range of food items include spicy popcorn seasoned with lime powder, ancho chili, and cotija cheese; a decadent lobster mac & cheese; tacos; burgers; and steak frites.

With its 13th anniversary approaching this December and as a featured local vendor at the upcoming Thrillist Block Party taking place in Harlem on September 12, 67 Orange reminisces on their victories and struggles, and their commitment to elevating Harlem. “I am proud of the impact 67 Orange St. has on its community and the staff,” says Williams. “We have been able to build a legacy outside and off the beaten path, and to develop ourselves in an industry where we were initially outsiders. This spirit touches with the resilient personality of Harlem.”

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Thrillist and DoorDash partnered with Harlem Block Party Executive Producer Tren’ness Woods-Black to select four local Harlem business owners from Harlem Park to Park's Local Vendor Program. Each recipient received a grant furnished by Thrillist and DoorDash along with prominent exposure at Harlem Block Party and across a series of content/ social extensions amplifying their small business.
Pooja Shah is a freelance writer living in New York City. She writes about culture, food, social justice issues, wellness and lifestyle. Find more of her work at www.pooja-shah.com.