Horseshoe Bar Is the Center of NYC's 'Russian Doll' Multiverse
It's still a vital part of the East Village.
In the second season of Russian Doll, Natasha Lyonne’s Nadia Vulkov, having extricated herself from a time loop, takes the 6 train downtown and ends up in the 1980s. Fumbling around in her pockets for clues as to what the hell is going on she finds a matchbook for a bar called the Black Gumball. But it’s not an unfamiliar location.
It’s 7b, aka Horseshoe Bar, aka Vazacs, a staple of the East Village that figured prominently into Nadia’s first adventure, as well as nearly countless other TV shows and films including The Godfather Part II, The Verdict, and Jessica Jones. For Nicole Hudson, who inherited the bar from her grandfather and then father, the first time she remembers seeing her family’s institution on screen was in Crocodile Dundee. Visiting Hudson at the spot one rainy morning before opening I asked her what she saw as its place in the fabric of the neighborhood. It’s hard for her to answer. “I always like to say that I wish I could remember the first time I walked through the door, because I've just been here for so long,” she says.
That feels apt for Horseshoe’s place in this season of Russian Doll, where Nadia has to navigate—in the body of her mother who is pregnant with her, no less—a world that is both static and altered. The spaces haven’t changed all that much in this new set of episodes, but the time has. “I thought it would be really fun to visit these locations and revert them to their 1982 self,” production designer Diane Lederman says. “And so, we really played with that as much as possible. And Natasha ended up having a lot of fun writing to that idea.”
Horseshoe is maybe the perfect example of the way the East Village has evolved and remained the same. The space began as Vazacs Catering Hall, and that name remains emblazoned on the outside of the brick structure. For years the watering hole never really had a moniker of its own, but was colloquially known as Horseshoe Bar because of, well, its long, curved bar that’s shaped like a horseshoe. Sometimes people would call it 7b because it’s located on the corner of 7th Street and Avenue B. A bartender about 10 years ago made the current logo, which features “7b” snuggled inside a horseshoe graphic, and Hudson eventually had to add signage when she received a fine from the cops because there was no number on the outside, a long held tradition of the place. “It was just kind of generational and named itself,” Hudson says. “We became the bar with three names.”
Russian Doll season 2 was filming during the thick of COVID, so transforming the bar into how it might have looked during the early ’80s required taking down the outdoor shed that had been Hudson’s lifeline throughout the pandemic. “It's like, ‘Guys, we have to put this back,’” Hudson remembers thinking. Lederman, meanwhile, knew Lyonne was a stickler for making the space period accurate so she had to get rid of some of the neon signage as well as modern liquor brands and the television that now dot the room.
But the designer also had a leg up on understanding the space Horseshoe occupied in the era: As a college student she would frequent it herself. “All my friends were squatters down in Alphabet City,” she says. “I had a lot of friends who were very into the anti-gentrification movement, and were part of the whole protest that happened at Tompkins Square Park. I was there, at the time, in the scene. And very familiar with what that bar looked like, because it was part of my stomping ground.”
Still, she and Lederman took some liberties when redesigning the space, including adding a go-go dancer. “We added beads and lights, and anything that you would associate with go-go dancing,” she says. “In the early 80's there were a lot of these places that had that kind of entertainment.” Horseshoe didn’t. But a place like it might have.
Lyonne, a cinephile, wanted to work in an homage to Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, specifically the moment where Robert de Niro strides into a bar doused in red light as Harvey Keitel looks on. “That was one of our inspirations for the lighting in the bar,” Lederman says. And yet, despite the additions, Horseshoe remains distinctly recognizable.
I ask Hudson why it’s been such a desirable place to film over the years, and she attributes it to the aesthetic: The distinctive shape of the bar, the multicolored panes in the windows, the brick facade. “I guess we were just lucky with that,” she says. She remembers the cold night when Seth Rogen filmed The Night Before, and bonding with Jay Hernandez during shooting for the direct-to-video sequel to Carlito’s Way. She says she gets tourists who come in knowing the venue from the Mark Ruffalo-Keira Knightley music drama Begin Again. When I tell her about the plot of this season of Russian Doll—which she had not yet been privy to—she is taken aback. “That's giving me goosebumps because it's kind of eerily close to my scenario, you know,” she says.
Of course, Hudson hasn’t taken time traveled using the 6 train and inhabited her mom’s pregnant body, but Horseshoe has always been there for her. Just like it was always there for Nadia.