There was a time in Brooklyn when the best hangout spots weren’t adorned with flat-screen televisions or bordered by sidewalk seating, where the most popular menu items weren’t bourbon chicken wraps or the spinach artichoke dip. When young adults in the late 60’s and early 70’s wanted to have a drink or shoot some pool, they’d visit the local social club to be around like-minded folk and to unwind. And though most of these iconic taverns have ceded space and significance to more contemporary restaurants and bars, some of the past has managed to survive into the future, unencumbered by change, resilient and consistent.
Walter Austin arrived from North Carolina in the 1950’s with his wife Irene. They moved to Brooklyn and Walter worked in construction. But while his day job provided a life for his wife and children, Walter yearned to chase his dream. He wanted to own a tavern, a place where men and women alike could come to socialize and find solace from the city. In 1970, Walter opened Brothers Social Club at 432 Franklin Avenue. Antoinette Greer, Walter’s granddaughter and the third generation of family proprietors of Tip Top explains the beginning, “My Grandad always wanted to have a bar. In 1970 he opened a social club called Brothers Social Club. There were pool tables and basically it was a neighborhood spot. Cops from the 88th precinct would come and play pool. Even though it was Brothers Social Club, we all called it the pool hall because that’s where people would go to play pool. The place would be used for birthday parties and other family events too. The entire community was welcome.”
The social club became well known in the community. Cops enjoyed the pool table. Young people enjoyed the scene. And two of the main attractions of the social club was the jukebox and Aunt Midgie’s food. Antoinette explains, “We had an old school jukebox and people would come by and have dinner, shoot some pool and listen to music in the jukebox. Aunt Midgie was the chef back then. A huge part of our customer base back then was people coming to get some of Aunt Midgie’s food.”
Brothers Social Club was family-run and the energy of the tavern made the community feel like family. That was always the strength of the establishment. As Antoinette puts it, “The social club was a place where everybody knows everybody. You would notice when there was someone new in the place, but in a matter of minutes that new person felt like they were at home. It never failed.”
As the times began to change, the concept of the social club became a limiting one. The regulars retired from NYPD, or became too elderly to play pool every day, or they moved away. Slowly, fewer and fewer people started hanging out at Brothers. Walter saw the writing on the wall, and sought to keep ahead of that change. So, 20 years ago Walter got an official liquor license and renamed Brothers Social Club to Tip Top Bar and Grill. The new name didn’t change the family-run energy. When Aunt Midgie passed away, Aunt Sally took on the duties of chef. To this day, patrons will come by the bar just for a taste of Aunt Sally’s fish and chips. One thing however, did change with the new name. “When the name changed to Tip Top, granddad removed the pool tables.”
Walter Austin and the Tip Top Bar and Grill became an unofficial holy grail of tavern success in Brooklyn. Before his death in 2015, it was common to see Walter sitting at the bar educating others on the business. Antoinette says, “There’s a guy. He owns a bar in the neighborhood now, but for years before he got his place he would come into Tip Top weekly just to pick granddad’s brain about the business.” It is Mr. Austin’s character that Antoinette wishes to drive home as the legacy and the future of Tip Top.
“One of the most important things, is that growing up with my grandfather, he was always a giver. So when you had relatives, for example, that would come from down south and needed a start, they would always stay at his home. Helping other people was who he was. As the neighborhood has changed it’s interesting to see the change of the people that come to the bar. But the oldtimers still come by, and sometimes you’ll catch the oldtimers sharing stories with the new Brooklyn folk. Granddad would’ve enjoyed that.”
As Tip Top Bar and Grill celebrates 50 years servicing the community, Antoinette is cognizant of the secret to their success, and she’s hopeful that the recipe will continue to yield return business. Her grandmother Irene is still at the bar every day, and even as things change, there are some things that the family doesn’t mind staying the same.
“I want Tip Top to be the kind of place that no matter who you are, you can come inside and feel safe, feel like home. So, even though in some ways you have to keep up with the times, we don’t ever want Tip Top to lose that.”