Bar Keeping

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A couple of months ago, walking down Third Avenue, I committed an honest-to-God Elmer Fudd double-take: Tuesday’s was gone! Or, more accurately, transformed into Sal Anthony’s Scheffel Hall Movement Salon, offering gyro-tonics, ancestor channeling, and other New Age piffle. All that was left of what it had replaced was a mural up near the ceiling where, varnished by decades of cigar smoke, monks still lifted steins in a dim yellow carouse.

The movement salon took its name from the building, Scheffel Hall, a gathering place built for what would today be called “the German-American community” at a time when New York was nearly as much a German town as an Irish one. The legend SCHEFFEL HALL is still clearly visible on the building’s busy facade (CHEFFEL, actually, the S having been claimed by obliterating time), but it’s the name right next to it—and equally easy to make out—that mattered more to me: ALLAIRE’S . It had been a saloon, always. Opened during the second year of the Civil War, Allaire’s provided O. Henry with the setting for his story “The Halberdier of the Little Rheinschloss,” and over the decades its walls acquired a wonderful accretion of lithographs of prizefighters and women in tights and, later, photos of drivers in the coffin-snouted racing cars of the 1910s. By midcentury the bar had become Joe King’s Rathskeller, a famous hangout for college kids—and a particularly appealing one to me, who, in the late 1960s, could go there and see a picture of some long-dead welterweight and later talk to a dour washroom attendant who remembered watching him fight out at Coney.

I was growing up or getting a job or married when a restaurant chain took over Joe King’s; the next time I went there, it was Tuesday’s. I’d gone back in the service of this magazine. Like most journals, we seek ways to draw advertisers’ attention to our virtues. In our case this presents a unique challenge: how to suggest to people who tend to be young and not automatically drawn to the study of history that our franchise is a vital and engaging one. Twelve years ago we lit on the idea of taking a group of potential clients on a tour of classic saloons, of which our neighborhood has an impressive supply.

I discovered what Joe King’s had become while scouting out the route of that inaugural tour. The old bar’s new management clearly didn’t care much about its heritage, but the pugilists and heroic-thighed women were still on the walls, and Tuesday’s became part of our itinerary. So did the nearby Pete’s Tavern (another O. Henry haunt); the scrupulously preserved Old Town (before the opening sequence of the Letterman show made it famous); Chumley’s (a true speakeasy, and just as hard to find as it was when Helen Worden reported in her 1932 guidebook The Real New York that “the quickest way to reach 86 Bedford Street is in a local taxi. Even Mr. Chumley can’t find his own gate when he ventures away from it”); the White Horse Tavern (where Dylan Thomas drank himself to death, an oddly morbid and arty association for this workaday spot where draymen on their way to the Washington Market could sink a couple of schooners); and, of course, McSorley’s Old Ale House, perhaps the most evocative of all bars, its fixtures furred with immemorial dust, its frame-to-frame prints and posters including one calling for the arrest of Lincoln’s assassin before anyone was sure who he was.

On the appointed evening, we took our group on what we had christened the American Heritage Pub Crawl, going from bar to busy bar while I brayed out fragments of information and misinformation above the din. We’ve done it every spring ever since, each time with a larger string of guests in tow. And if the dozen years older I’ve become sometimes make the marathon feel a bit more wearing than it did in the roaring eighties, they’ve also brought me an increasing appreciation of the places we stop at.

Last May, while our publisher, Ed Hughes, and I welcomed guests to a dining room we’d reserved at Pete’s (we’ve found it’s not a bad idea to feed the people embarked on this particular odyssey), it struck me that a few blocks to the north, Grand Central Terminal had just emerged shining and altogether magnificent from its justly heralded restoration—but that the most modest of the places we were visiting in Grand Central’s figurative shadow represented an even more miraculous survival.

Besieged by time, by changing custom, by federal law (all of them were illegal between 1919 and 1933), they had hung on simply by giving weary people something of value cheap: respite for working folk whose lives would have been unimaginably severe to most of us. Today they offer the same sort of comfort—and with it an intimate, vital connection to the vanished generations whose elbows helped rub smooth the mahogany under yours.

New York has no monopoly on these establishments: Chicagoans can have wurst and lager at the Berghoff; San Franciscans have kept alive the House of Shields; Bostonians Lock-Ober’s. There’s likely one soldiering along not far from where you live. Give it a try. It may not be the frigate Constitution, but it’s a historic shrine nonetheless. If it goes the way of Tuesday’s, you’ve lost something, and so have all the rest of us.

Richard F. Snow