A Tour of NYC’s Historic Barroom Diaspora

For 25 years, Robert Simonson has catalogued the vestiges of New York's bygone taprooms—from neon signs to murals to bar counters themselves—proving that many bars come and go, but some never fully disappear.

Bars come, and bars go. But in a city as old as New York, with its many strata of history, they don’t all completely disappear. That brass rail you just rested your foot on, that mile-high mirror you gazed into, that ancient neon sign you passed under before entering—they may have done time at some other saloon before finding their current employment. In that respect, it’s sometimes possible to drink in two eras at once, in the same bar.

Owing to my twin interests in both drinking and eating establishments and New York history, I began to casually catalog the vestiges of old bar room—what you might call New York’s Bar Diaspora—shortly after I moved to the city, roughly 25 years ago. This hobby picked up steam when someone tipped me off that the old neon sign that hung outside McHale’s—a 52-year-old saloon on the northeast corner of 46th Street and 8th Avenue that was shuttered in 2006—had not been destroyed, but was in fact peaceably enduring four blocks to the north, inside Emmett O’Lunney’s pub.

McHale’s had been a favorite of mine. It was the low-tariff hangout of Broadway stagehands and bit-part actors for decades. And while its legendary burgers are a faint memory now, its iconic pink, blue and green neon sign now dominates the dining room of O’Lunney’s, whose owner bought it during McHale’s final days and had it restored. (Now, does anyone out there know where McHale’s old bar, which came from the 1939 World’s Fair, landed?)

Barroom Scribbles

A few blocks to the north and east, on E. 54th Street, is Bill’s Food & Drink—a swanky steakhouse whose name nods to the building’s former tenant, Bill’s Gay Nineties. While the history of Bill’s Gay Nineties stretches back to Prohibition days, it was never as famous for its clientele as, say, P.J. Clarke’s, or mythologized by writers the way McSorley’s Ale House has been. But while it operated, it was a living time capsule in more ways than one.

Bill’s original bar and décor were historic themselves, but the saloon also contained remnants of other, older bars. The small wooden bar on the third floor came from the final location (44th and Fifth Avenue) of the most famous restaurant in New York history—Delmonico’s. And the swinging doors that once hung at the entrance of the main bar came from the old Hoffman House, the fancy Madison Square hotel bar that wetted the whistlers of the rich and powerful during New York’s Gilded Age.

While Bill’s owner, Barbara Bart, took all these relics with her when Bill’s Gay Nineties was forced to close in 2012, the owners of the new Bill’s Food and Drink managed to uncover a further layer of the bar’s history when they refurbished the place—a mural composed of comical ads for then-popular booze brands (Ballantine’s, etc.), which now greets guests at the entrance to the ground floor bar.

But there are murals and then there are murals. In the realm of historic bar art (or advertising), there is perhaps no item in New York’s diaspora more iconic than Maxfield Parrish’s massive “Old King Cole” mural, which has long hung a short jog east of Bill’s, above the St. Regis Hotel’s King Cole Bar on E. 55th Street off Fifth Avenue. While most consider the mural an indelible part of the hotel’s character, it’s actually not the painting’s original home.

Parrish originally created it for the Knickerbocker Hotel, which opened at the southeast corner of 42nd Street and Broadway in 1906, at a time when that intersection was just beginning to earn its reputation as the Crossroads of the World. (The Beaux-Arts building that was the Knickerbocker’s home, now a protected landmark, still stands.) It first hung in that hotel’s bar, which was an immediate hit among the well-heeled. Upon the advent of Prohibition, in 1919, hotel owner Vincent Astor decided to shut down the Knickerbocker. The mural eventually found its way to the St. Regis, another one of Astor’s properties, in 1932.

A quick ride south on the Lexington Avenue line to Grand Central will land you a block from Third Avenue. Back when the Third Avenue El—the elevated subway that rumbled through Manhattan until the 1950s—was casting shade over eastern Manhattan, that thoroughfare was lined with workingmen’s taverns. The most famous was Costello’s, which, owing to its proximity to the The New Yorker offices, became the clubhouse of the magazine’s writers. James Thurber covered the bar’s walls with illustrations, and John McNulty made Costello’s breed of watering hole famous with his flavorful story-snapshots of barroom life.

When the original building was torn down to make room for a skyscraper, Tim Costello, Jr., the son of the bar’s founder, moved the bar to 225 E. 44th Street. To replace the disappeared Thurber art, Costello invited Bill Gallo and a host of other well-known cartoonists to scribble all over the walls. Those drawing still stand, even as the bar operates under its new name—Overlook Lounge.

The Whole Nine

The centerpiece and gathering place of any barroom is, of course, the bar itself—some of which are so significant that they’ve been picked up and transported whole or preserved for the patrons and centuries to come.

Just off Park Avenue on E. 60th Street, at The Bar Room, you’ll find one of the city’s most beautiful bars—an ornately carved dark wood masterpiece with beveled-glass liquor cabinets and a large inset grandfather clock. Before it made its way here, this bar stood for a century inside a building at 108 W. 18th Street, which was one of the original Anheuser-Busch bars—that is, a bar financed by the beer giant with the understanding that the joint would serve only the brewery’s liquid. The establishment sailed under many names, including Harvey’s Chelsea House, but it last functioned as Tonic, where Audrey Saunders briefly bartended pre-Pegu Club. The owner of The Bar Room, Steve Tzolis, owned Tonic and apparently had the sense to hang onto a good piece of furniture when he saw it.

Perhaps the most famous remaining bygone-era bar is the former property of Warner LeRoy’s legendary and lavish Maxwell’s Plum—one of the hottest singles meccas of the 1960s and ‘70s. The flamboyant interior featured stained glass, ceramic animals and—that hallmark of ‘70s bar design—plenty of Tiffany lampshades. When LeRoy closed the place and auctioned off the interior, Drew Nieporent, the owner of the Tribeca Grill and a former employee at Maxwell’s, bought Maxwell’s Plum’s distinctive island bar, and made it the centerpiece of his downtown restaurant, where it—and memories of Maxwell’s—still looms large.

But few restaurants can retain a grip on the collective civic imagination quite like Luchow’s—the German palace of bratwurst, brew and Bavarian music that stood for more than a century at 100 E. 14th Street.

The one-time haunt of such music-world giants as Paderewski, Dvorak, Caruso, Victor Herbert (the Academy of Music and Steinway Hall were once down the block) Oscar Hammerstein, Gus Kahn (who wrote “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby” on a cocktail napkin there), Lillian Russell and the voracious omnivore “Diamond” Jim Brady, tragically closed in 1982. Miraculously, however, the back bar lives on, incongruously doing service at Café Remy, a Latin nightclub in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Remy used to be a bar called T.J. Bentley’s whose owner bought the old German bar when it closed. Thankfully, the guy who now runs Remy knows the jewel he has. When and if you go, say “Prost” before bringing your drink to your lips. The bartender may not understand. But you will.