This isn’t about narrow escapes from danger in the Big Apple, though there’s a reason the phrase carries that connotation, too. I’m talking about the kind of close shaves you pay to have: the true barbershop experience.
For most men, shaving is a chore, but with time, we manage to get it down to a science and a routine: I shave my head and face daily, completing the task in 2-3 minutes as I shower. Once in awhile, though, we too need a little pampering, and the barbershop is where we turn.
It’s a ritual-like experience, complete with hot towels, moisturizers, oils, and a master barber who handles the blade. Tipped back in the chair, it’s a bit of enforced relaxation: you don’t dare move while it’s happening, but it feels great all the same.
The tradition has been alive and well since 300 B.C., when a Roman Senator, returning from Sicily, introduced the custom to Rome. It has since staked its claim in American grooming culture, evolving from the early 20th-century barbershop (think: striped pole, leather razor strop) to today’s sleek spaces—though there’s still a sepia toned nostalgia to be found there, too. Hot shave uninitiated, I set out to experience, for the first time ever, three contemporary barbers in New York’s uptown, midtown, and downtown. I got my face and head shaved at each of them. Here’s what I found.
Uptown Chic: Julien Farel Restore Salon & Spa
Located within the Loews Regency Hotel, JF Salon oozes affluent elegance: sleek, blonde wood fixtures, soft music, flattering lighting. While at first blush the two-story spa appears to appeal mostly to women, the lower level, set with darker woods and gray leathers, provides a full range of services just for the guys: haircuts, hot shaves, hair coloring, massage, and—according to Farel—the most indulgent of them all: a full head shave. Their treatment starts with a hot towel application and a massage using a house-prepared pre-shave oil, and ends with a series of hot towels, cold towels, and a facemask of custom-mixed clays. Gabriel, a barber dressed sharply in black slacks, white shirt, and black vest, used a safety razor with a fresh, new blade to shave my scalp and face, and talked me through his shaving philosophy all the while. Face shaves, from $55, head shaves, $55; 540 Park Ave.; julienfarel.com.
Midtown Business Class: The Art of Shaving
The Art of Shaving has been supplying high-end shaving products for over 20 years. More recently, however, AOS has been offering barber-style face and head shaves at several of its locations, including Rockefeller Center. (There’s only one chair, and one barber, so call ahead to make an appointment.) Located in the back room, with dark brown paneling, a classic-looking black-and-white tile floor, and jazz standards playing softly in the background, the ambiance channels a ’30s-era barbershop, challenging the neighborhood’s corporate vibe with a very private, focused experience. The hour-long Royal Face Shave starts with an application of the brand’s own pre-shave oil (all products are available for purchase), then a hot towel, followed by more oil, an application of hot lather, and a clay mask to finish. Serge, looking like an old-fashioned barber in black slacks, white shirt, and suspenders, used an equally old-fashioned straight razor. The comfortable chairs tip back until they’re nearly flat. Head shaves and Royal Face shaves, $90; 55 W. 49th St.; theartofshaving.com.
Downtown Funk: Freemans Sporting Club
While Freemans, located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, might seem like a classic barbershop, with its seven chairs each facing their own mirror, the vibe inside is anything but old-fashioned: whitewashed brick walls, alternative tunes filtering in through the sound system, a bustling, convivial feeling. The hipster barbers, both men and women, chat with clients as they cut and style hair. Their shave treatment features multiple applications of hot towels, Ursa Major’s facial tonic, made in Vermont, with aloe and bamboo; Blackburn’s Shave Oil from Oregon; a hot lather; and an after-shave balm from Malin & Goetz. Miles, dressed down in baggy shorts, a funky t-shirt, and a hat (he’s too busy to get his own hair cut), used a safety razor, preferring Feather brand blades from Japan, and offered commentary on how shaves differ around the world while he worked. (In Japan, barbers shave ears, foreheads, and noses as part of a regular shave.) Head shaves, $48; face shaves, $50; 8 Rivington St.; freemanssportingclub.com.