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If You Went to Elaine’s, You Knew “Duffy”

After it closed in 2011, Kevin Philzone landed at Neary’s where he’s been tending bar for nearly a decade.

Neary’s, a snug Midtown watering hole on E. 57th Street, spitting distance from Sutton Place, that seems detached from time and worry itself, has over the decades become a haven for those who wish Manhattan—and life—would slow down a bit. Helping to foster this atmosphere is Jimmy Neary himself. The diminutive, white-haired, 89-year-old owner, always nattily dressed in a suit and tie, frequently seen hobnobbing with guests, is the central figure of any evening at Neary’s. Ranking just below Jimmy and his daughter, Una, is bartender Kevin Philzone, known to all who have met him more than once as “Duffy.”

A gentle giant behind the bar, Duffy is always ready with a good joke or story, be it from his upbringing in the Bronx, his days as an off-off-Broadway playwright in the 1980s, the many different bar jobs he has held down, or from his time working under the imperious Elaine Kaufman—owner of the storied Upper East Side saloon Elaine’s, longtime haunt of politicians, writers and celebrities.

Philzone didn’t have to wait long after Elaine’s closed in 2011 to land his next job. A few phone calls from Jimmy and Una and a lucky bit of shared Irish lineage did the trick. Eight years into his current gig, he’s a well-established presence alongside the other white-haired gents that make up Neary’s bar staff. On a recent Monday evening—a surprisingly busy one for August in Manhattan—he responded to orders within seconds at both the main bar and service bar, sometimes offering dining recommendations (“Lamb chops! Best in town.”), and leaning over to confer with a flamboyant woman in large glasses who could have passed for Kaufman’s long-lost sister. So efficient was he at his job that he seemed at ease, using the time to scan the room and the older clientele, affirming everyone’s status as contented. Duffy seems contented himself, a survivor working in a survivor bar. He pointed out that it’s the only place where he has bartended that is still standing. “They’re all gone, the places I worked.”

How did you get your nickname?
I grew up in an Irish neighborhood in the Bronx. Everyone in that neighborhood was Irish. Everyone in the building I grew up in was named Kevin. We had a family friend across the street who would watch us sometimes, and she had a Kevin. She would call her son Kevin O’Grady, and I was Kevin Duffy. And it stuck.

How did you find your way behind the bar?
I was looking for something to do [that] I liked. I liked people. I was a salesman before this. I liked bars. I hung out in bars since I was 18. I enjoyed the atmosphere. I had a couple people in my family in the business and they always seemed to be prosperous. So I thought I oughta give it a try.

What was the first bar job you got?
The first one was a restaurant run by a Jimmy Going. He had owned the Mumbles chain. He opened a bar in the Tudor Hotel, named after his wife, called Jean’s.

How did you get the job at Neary’s?
Elaine’s had just closed and I got this call from Una Neary, Jimmy’s daughter. I didn’t know her. She said, “A customer said you were looking for work. Would you consider working for us?” I didn’t know the place. I said, “Why not? I’ll come down.” Jimmy [Neary] called the same hour. He said, “I just got off the plane. I haven’t even picked up my bags. Could you come in Monday?” Then he asked if I’m Irish. I said I’m part Irish. My grandparents are from Sligo and Mayo. “Well, I’m from Sligo,” said Jimmy. “What name?” Scanlon. “My next-door neighbor is a Scanlon!” he said. “When can you start?” That was my interview. Sligo is big with Jimmy. If you’re from Sligo, you’re OK.

What do you think makes for a good bartender?
You have to pay attention. And you have to want to be good at it. I know a lot of people who just do it on the side, or don’t know what else to do. You have to want to be good at it. When I started, I went around and watched all the best bartenders [in their homes], like Paddy Ford and John Flood—fastest guy I ever worked with. You watch their jokes, how they pour a drink, how they work the cash register, how they talk to customers, and you try to incorporate what they do into what you do.

What makes for a good Neary’s bartender?
Neary’s is a different kind of place. It’s a family-run operation. Everyone in the neighborhood knows Jimmy. The key to being successful is reminding everyone that Jimmy is the owner and everything will be fine. At a place like Elaine’s, she wanted you to have your own personality.

What was it like working for Elaine?
I’m going to give you one story. I come into work, and at Table 2 are two sportswriters having dinner, Bob Raissman and Bill Madden. At some point, Charlie Gasparino comes in. He’s a financial reporter. He sits down at the next table and starts saying some disparaging things about someone Raissman knew. Bob has a couple of wines in him, so he gets up and hits Charlie. Charlie doesn’t move. He realizes that was Raissman’s best shot and now Bob’s in trouble. Bob goes into the kitchen and is standing there on the line with the chef and the kitchen staff. Elaine comes to me and says, “Duffy, you gotta stop this.” Charlie comes into the kitchen and I reason with him: “Come on, Charlie, Elaine’s not going to like this.” So he leaves and goes back to his table. Elaine comes to me and says, “This is no good. I can’t have this in my place. One of them’s got to leave.” I say, “Well, Bob started it.” Elaine says, “Who’s got the biggest check?” Bob. “So Charlie goes!”

What advice would you give a bartender just entering the field?
The most important thing you can do is be a good employee. The rent these owners pay is ridiculous. The best thing you can do is make them as much as money as you can, so you can still have a job. Keep your boss in business. You have to be a concerned party in their business.

What’s an unusual drink order you’ve gotten?
It wasn’t me. But I was there. It was a bartender named Kevin O’Shea. A woman comes up and says, “I want a Star Wars.” Kevin says, “What’s that?” and she starts naming all these ingredients. She wants a Dale DeGroff–type drink and we’re three deep. Finally Kevin finishes. She asks how much. “$30.” She says, “$30 for that?!” Kevin says, “Yeah. The Empire Strikes Back!”

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