Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Literary Bar Crawl

New York City is by all accounts a literary one. Our number of writers per capita is notorious (who hasn’t seen a movie in which the motivated youngster coming into his or her own who dreams of becoming a professional writer is New York bound on account of it?) and most of the country’s biggest and most well known publishing houses are concentrated here. Consequently, there are a number of bars here that promote themselves as former haunts of literary giants. For a total book dweeb like myself and I suspect many of the other transplants who flock to this city every year to write, edit, publish and just soak up and enjoy great literature, trips to these places could be like a baseball aficionado’s first visit to Fenway Park, or a movie buff’s tour of celebrity houses out in Hollywood. It occurred to me recently how few of these places I had been to firsthand, despite the fact that I had always intended to when I arrived in New York from Ohio five years ago. Figuring there’s no time like the present, I convinced my equally book dweeby beau, Ben, to check out as many places as it would be sane to in one day, and the idea for a literary bar crawl was born. And so, we set out one sunny Sunday morning earlier this month to find out just how much history can be gleaned from these bars, and to what extent they continue to capture the spirit of the writers they identify themselves with. Because we ended up taking a more epic stroll through the playgrounds of the literary set than we originally anticipated (and because I fear boring you all with too much at once!) I decided to use two blog posts to cover it all—two stops today, and two tomorrow.

We started with Pete’s Tavern, the great O’Henry’s rumored watering hole. O’Henry, a Southern boy by birth, was himself a transplant, and his fascination with and love for New York inspired many short stories set here. You don’t even have to step foot in Peter’s, located just northeast of Union Square, to detect the writer’s presence—a street sign just outside the bar warns you that you’re approaching “O’Henry Way.”

Once inside the doors, Ben and I were seated in the booth where O’Henry allegedly wrote “The Gif of the Magi,” arguably his most famous piece of work, in 1905. In addition to a sign announcing this, our booth boasted a shot of the cast from the Broadway musical inspired by two O’Henry short stories; an invitation to a cocktail party hosted by Peter Graves, the star of the O’Henry musical special on NBC in the 70’s; a handwritten letter from O’Henry declining a dinner invitation (signed S.P. for his real name: William Sydney Porter); and a copy of “The Gift of the Magi” as it ran December 21, 1930 in New York’s Sunday edition of The World Magazine.

Our menus claimed that the bar looked exactly as it did when O’Henry himself dined here. With its tin roof, tall wooden booths painted a somber black, brass taps and a giant wall length mirror behind the bar that it looked like it hadn’t been Windexed in a century or two, I was inclined to believe them. As Ben remarked, it looked like the kind of place where one would find Frank Sinatra hanging out. It’s also a historical landmark, and claims to be the oldest operating bar and restaurant in New York City. It opened in 1851 as a “grocery and grog” (a euphemism for liquor store!) and became a tavern in 1864 (even prohibition couldn’t stop it—it covered as flower shop during those dry years).

Despite the wealth of historical touches, and the vests and ties that all of the waiters and bartenders wear, there were some modern details. The music that accompanied our perfectly cooked coconut shrimp appetizer ranged from Karen Carpenter to Jamiroquai. Both the Mets and the Yankees games were on, and a distinguished looking older couple who were intensely engaged in the former wore very high tech looking red and white windbreakers that, paired with their khakis, complimented nicely the bunting at the center of the bar. Pictures of every celebrity from the 1936 heavyweight boxing champion to Kelly Ripa hang on the bar's walls, including Gerard Butler, a very drunk looking Owen Wilson, and John Turturro (they seem to like him especially—the same picture of him hangs in two different spot on the wall). Apparently JFK never came in but they wish he had—a very formal looking portrait of him hangs in a prominent spot.

Ben and I opted not to indulge in any of their considerable lunch and dinner options (they had a nice variety of pastas, salads and burgers, as well as 16 beers on tap, 11 bottles, 11 single malts and 8 frozen drinks), but we did try their 1864 House Ale, which is brewed just for them in upstate New York. It looks a bit like a nut brown ale in color, but it was sweet and a bit creamy. Ben explained to me that it was a “session ale”—a cocktail that, while tasty, isn’t as heavy as some of its peers, and is often enjoyed by those who know they have lots of drinking ahead. This proved perfect for us, as we were still on our first stop.

On our way out, I asked a very dapperly dressed manager if any writers still come to work and he told me he couldn’t give me any names in order to protect there privacy. His response (especially given how proud they seemed to be of their celebrity wall) paired with the fact that most of the people in the bar seemed fairly oblivious to all of the fascinating artifacts that their booths were covered in struck me as a no. Disappointingly enough, the only indication we got from any living, breathing people that an awareness of the bar’s history had any role in their choosing it was one drunk man at the bar’s declaration that “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Next up was the Algonquin, the fanciest joint on our list by far, a fact confirmed by the fact that two suited men opened the door for us in unison upon our arrival. Located in lobby of the Algonquin hotel, this bar was the meeting place of the Round Table, where The New Yorker was born (guests of the hotel still receive a complimentary copy of the magazine). A large mural of the groups’ members, including Dorothy Parker and Harold Ross, holds a prominent, sacred-feeling spot in front of an actual round table at the back of the lobby. Several of Parker’s notoriously witty turns of phrase are framed in front of it. We took all this in as Prairie Home Companion floated out from speakers above us.

Ben and I quickly headed over to the bar just off to the side of the lobby. With its dark lighting, leather booths, and Al Hirschfeld cartoons from The New Yorker lining the walls, it had a speakeasy feel. We wasted no time before indulging in the Dorothy Parker mini burgers that were delightfully juicy, and topped with wasabi mayo, blue cheese and cheddar. As perused the drink menu—full of colorfully named drinks like The Texas Millionaire (Knob Creek, sweet vermouth, grand marnier, shaken over ice) and The Hemingway (Stolichnaya, fresh squeezed ruby red grapefruit, simple syrup, sugar rim)—we couldn’t help but take note of the clientele. Directly to our right was a gold spectacled man who looked to be in his early sixties. His colorful scarf and eccentric, uncombed gray hair tipped us off that he was a character before he opened his mouth to answer the bartender’s question about which basketball team he was rooting for in a game against Boston and Orlando: “I don’t look like I’m from Orlando, do I?” To our left was a small group of British tourists in town for a wedding drinking martinis well before 5, marveling at how good it always felt to take that first sip of an after work martini every evening. F. Scott would be proud.

The bartender, Mr. Rodney Landers, proved to be the real highlight of this stop, though. He went out of his way to direct the Brits on where to buy cheap cigarettes and continued to top off my Mimosa with champagne. These early signs of camaraderie inspired us to explain to him our pursuit, and this was all he needed to whip out a small, crumpled napkin on which was the recipe for is own cocktail masterpiece in the works: The Flapper. (He defined if for us several times over the course of our conversation: “flappers were the party girls of the 20s.”) When we asked nicely, he agreed to make one for us, and we became the Flapper’s first paying customers. Made with muddled jalapeno and elder flower, he warned us that there was “some bite on the back,” which there was indeed. It came dressed with a strawberry and a jalapeno, which he warned us would normally be a raspberry—Parker’s favorite—he had just run out. The combination of sweet and spicy was delightful.

On our way out, we asked Rodney for an anecdote about the members of the round table, and he was happy to oblige. He told us that when, as a columnist for the Times, Parker approached Harold Ross about joining the round table he told her that if she could put the word horticulturalist in a sentence and make it funny she was in. Her answer: you can lead a horticulturalist to water, but you can’t make him think.” The rest, as they say, is history . . . Despite the fact that the rest of the information Rodney gave us was sometimes questionable, the experience at the Algonquin was pretty transporting—aside from our gold spectacled friend’s basketball game, every detail felt authentic to the roaring twenties, and Rodney’s excitement about our questions and the bar’s history was palpable. I kept looking around expecting to see one of the celebrated writers in the flesh, and had we not had two more stops on our trip, I would’ve gladly stayed for another round of Dorothy Parker mini burgers. . .

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