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Bar Review: Can the New Chumley’s Live Up to Its Iconic Past?

In Robert Simonson's "Bar Review," he offers a look at some of today’s most notable new venues. Here, he considers Chumley's, a historic speakeasy turned elite—and expensive—restaurant.

Chumley's bar nyc

If New York bar history were measured as seismic activity, April 5, 2007, would have registered as an 8.9 on the Richter scale. That was the date the chimney inside number 86 Bedford Street—better known to the world as Chumley’s—collapsed, resulting in the immediate closure of the fabled Greenwich Village saloon.

Few bars can claim as large a place in the drinking legacy of New York. Opened as a speakeasy in 1922 by Leland Stanford Chumley, it became the haunt of countless literary figures (O’Neill, Cummings, Dreiser, Dos Passos—you name ‘em), whose output was eventually commemorated on the bar’s walls by way of hundreds of framed photographs and book jackets. As Prohibition passed into history, Chumley’s held on to its secret ways, never hanging out a shingle and retaining its back entrance onto an interior courtyard.

Though advertised in plenty of tourist guidebooks, Chumley’s always felt like a local secret and a portal to the past. Every trip through the unmarked door was like passing through C.S. Lewis’ wardrobe into a bygone Village suffused with thirsts both intellectual and biological.

Given how things typically go in the ruthless circles of New York real estate, it should be regarded as an out-and-out miracle that Chumley’s was redelivered to New Yorkers at all. True, the building at 86 Bedford Street is no longer the original. But the old pictures and book jackets have been rehung. And the layout of the place will be vaguely familiar to any former habitué: dining room in front, bar through a separating archway, fireplace to the right. Most evocative is the rounded front door, which is famous enough that tourists still stop to take pictures of it.

Beyond that, however, this is not Ring Lardner’s Chumley’s—or even Ring Lardner Jr.’s. The new space is run by the controversial restaurateur Alessandro Borgognone, who also operates the celebrated Sushi Nakazawa. The old Chumley’s was a democratic bar that happened to serve food. This is an elite and expensive restaurant that happens to serve drinks. One step inside the door puts you face to face with a chic young person, iPad at the ready, asking about reservations.(Reservations, it turns out, are a big thing here. “Reserved” signs sit on nearly every table, and in front of all eight of the bar stools.) The hosts are kind and helpful, but it’s a bit like finding a velvet cordon at an entrance to Washington Square Park.

Inside the New Chumley's

The fact that the bar serves cocktails at all is a clear signal that this is Chumley’s 2.0. If the old Chumley’s served mixed drinks during Prohibition, they probably weren’t very good. And by the late-20th century, the bar was primarily a beer joint. The reborn Chumley’s, by contrast, stocks the best spirits and some damn gorgeous glassware—all the work of bar manager Jessie Duré, who has worked at the Bar & Books chain and Midtown’s American Whiskey. She exercises a straight-ahead but inventive approach to traditional drinking models here, which feels correct in spirit. The prices, however—$18 a drink—are modern.

The menu kicks off with two pages of mixed drinks, including a page devoted to Scotch highballs. This was a welcome sight. The highball, a mainstay of post-World War II drinking, has been neglected by cocktail bartenders until recently.

There’s a certain sameness to the selections in this section; Scotch can be a rather blitzing presence, sending all other ingredients on their backs. But that doesn’t mean the drinks aren’t good. Ol’ Poet’s Smoke, with its mix of Glenlivet Founder’s Reserve, honey, lemon and Amaro Montenegro, goes down like a healthful tonic. It’s what a Penicillin cocktail would be if it was a highball. Timmy’s in the Well, meanwhile, is made with the strongly flavored Highland Park 12-Year-Old. There’s some mutsu apple juice in there, but it barely registers, making this drink basically a Scotch and soda, and a very good one.

Duré’s talent for reasoned innovation is most apparent in the collection of original cocktails. The Mrs. Easy, which is served in a beautiful, wide-mouthed coupe, is made of gin, aquavit, lemon and lime juices, and a few curious pantry touches, including arugula, tarragon liqueur and an agave syrup infused with poppy seeds. It’s an odd potion—simultaneously vegetal and bread-y, as if a Southside suddenly went vegan. It works.

Even more daring is Who Sings That? Let’s Keep It That Way. It combines two kinds of bourbon, plus tart cherry liqueur, walnut liqueur, crème fraiche, lemon, sage, egg white and soda. This is where the bar meets the soda fountain. The drink arrives topped with a frothy head and tastes like a cherry-cream soda.

Duré has a nice way with classics as well. The house Old-Fashioned runs along traditional lines: rye, sugar, bitters, orange twist. But the preparation, picked up by Duré in Prague, is unique. The sugar cube is suspended upon a napkin, which rests atop the glass. It is then soaked with bitters. The saturated cube is dropped into the glass, while the bitters-soaked napkin is run along the rim. You’ll want a seat at the bar, if only to take in this nifty piece of theater.

That Old-Fashioned is a good drink to nurse while contemplating what has become of the old Chumley’s. Though the décor is a mix of old and new, the room—dim, warm, simultaneously historic and modern—conjures up a very particular New York atmosphere. The neither-new-nor-old Minetta Tavern, as reimagined and reinvigorated by Keith McNally, is the closest corollary.

At the same time, like Minetta Tavern, something authentic has been removed and supplanted by a doppelgänger that trades on the original’s charm. This is a city-wide phenomenon of many years’ standing. Real red-sauce joints like Rocco Ristorante close and are replaced by faux red-sauce circus acts like Carbone. Actual dive bars shutter, while the owners of new bars call their businesses dives with a straight face. Thus, Chumley’s becomes “Chumley’s.”

The new clientele is largely youthful, and one wonders if the name means anything to them. For those who do remember, there’s James DiPaola, a regular at the old bar. Dressing in a suit jacket and sporting a long gray ponytail, he can be found on the floor during the early dinner hours, volunteering his time and memories. He functions as a sort of ambassador from Chumley’s past, and you’d be well advised to engage him in conversation. He’s a fine reminder that you are occupying a special piece of New York real estate.

Would those thirsty ghosts DiPaola talks of as if they were old friends venture past the front door of the new Chumley’s? Or, sensing too many barriers between them and their next drink, would they stumble off to the nearby and even older White Horse Tavern? Would I?

I am glad I live in a New York that still has a place called Chumley’s, but this museum piece will never be any modest writer’s local. As one wag commented on my Instagram account when I posted a photo of the famous door: “Too bad the only author who can afford to go there now is J.K. Rowling.”

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