I first started going to Barbes somewhere around summer 2002. I'm guessing it must have just opened, because back then it wasn't very busy. My visits have dropped off a lot since, as it's evidenced by the overflow of people onto the sidewalk that Barbes has become quite the hot spot.
It makes me very sad though, that I don't see much of my old haunt anymore - as it was a great, great, great place. The drinks were very reasonable (at the time, they had, I think, one bottle of red in stock - but it was amazing, and only around $17 - a great price for a bottle at a bar). Beer back then was around $4 or $5 a pint - can't say if that's gone up.
I used to go with my old college roomate when he was in town, and we'd sit and play chess and drink wine and listen to the live jazz coming from the back room. There used to be FREE live jam sessions every Sunday night. They may be back now, but had been long, long suspended because the cat who organized them had (I was told) gone on tour to China or some far-off place.
If I recall right, one of the owner/mangers was Steve, a big guy with a shaved head and glasses and one of the sweetest bartenders I've ever met. Though it's been so long I'm sure I'm forgotten, there was a time he knew me by name, and would pull down the spare chess board he kept behind the bar when he saw my friend and I come in. Now THAT'S a great spot.
Of course, the NYC smoking ban also helped to drive me away...I felt like I was in some dive in Paris somewhere - or some equally far-off, mysterious and soulful place. I would disappear from Brooklyn for a couple hours into the hazy jazz scene. Now - to some's liking, but my chagrin - the haze has disappeared, and a lot of the mood and mystique went with it for me. Wine, chess and a cigarette was what that place was for me. So, by no fault of their own, it's just not the same for me.
I'm sure things have changed a bit, as we used to have our pick of tables and there was never a wait to get a drink. But I'm glad Barbes is booming. They more than deserve it.
Note: Frequent live shows, prices vary (sometimes free) - call or do as I did, and keep an eye on the chalkboard in the window when you walk by.