Though it takes its name from 1930s-era racketeer and Theatrical owner Morris "Mushy" Wexler, Wexler's Tavern (4555 State Rd., 216-398-5000, wexlerstavern.com) is a more modern invention. Original owner Lou Gentile opened it back in 1987, converting the former Hillcrest Tavern into the archetypal neighborhood pub.
Gentile sold the operation in 2002, only to retake control following an eight-year experiment that failed under somebody else's management. Now Doug Graziano is the new commanding officer of this venerable Old Brooklyn institution, having purchased the business from Gentile at the beginning of the year.
"I just want to bring it up a level — I'm not trying to be fancy," says Graziano, an Old Brooklyn resident who for the past 12 years was a defense contractor in Iraq and Afghanistan. "I want this to be the neighborhood bar where families and grandmas can all come in here and eat."
In addition to instituting a better management structure, Graziano hired back longtime chef Michael Southall, who was fired along with much of the original staff in 2002. The quality of the food will be improved, says the new owner, plus new items like Chicago-style pizzas will be added to the mix.
Some of the biggest improvements will be directed toward the cocktail program. To do that, Graziano brought in master mixologist and craft cocktail consultant Brian Van Flandern, who worked at Per Se restaurant in New York, among other spots. Van Flandern will craft a new cocktail menu, train bar and service staff, and return for continuing education sessions with staffers.
For those who would like to sample the work of a true cocktail pro, Van Flandern will be on site tonight, Tuesday and Wednesday (April 22-24) mixing up drinks.
The building Wexler's is in has a rich history around booze, serving as a speakeasy and bootlegging outfit back in the day. It's a theme Graziano soon hopes to build on when he transforms the bar's lower level into a speakeasy-themed bar. For now, he's just thrilled to be out of harm's way.
"I got sick and tired of hearing incoming, incoming, incoming. Having too many close calls over the years. Not showering."