When John O’Donnell Talks, People Listen

For the longtime Van’s employee, bartending is the only job he’s ever known.

Everyone at John O’Donnell’s bar is his friend. He calls them all by name as they enter the Park Avenue location of Bobby Van’s, just north of Grand Central. He claims he is friends with many of his regulars and hangs out with them outside the steakhouse. And at least one customer met his current wife thanks to O’Donnell. “I’m just a people person,” he explains in his soft-sandpaper New York accent.

O’Donnell comes from a long line of Irish bartenders and bar owners. Both his grandfather, a Bronx bigwig who ran the Irish sporting field and gathering place called Gaelic Park for decades, and his father tended bar, and John has known no other job. He started his education washing dishes at Gaelic Park and took the job at Van’s 20 years ago because, he says, “Every one of the owners started as a dishwasher, like I did.”

Handsome, trim and youthful-looking, it’s hard to believe O’Donnell has logged a half-century in the industry. But he has the street smarts and stories to back up his resume. That’s why when he opens his mouth to release a tale or a bit of wisdom, the brokers at the bar pause over their chicken parmigiana and vodka Martinis to pay attention, knowing something good’s on the way. As one suit said to me just after twisting his neck in the direction of the bar, “When EF Hutton talks…”

How did you find your way behind the bar?
“My grandfather started his first bar at 43rd Street and 8th Avenue in 1943. It was called O’Donnell’s. Right by Madison Square Garden, the old Garden by 49th and 50th Streets. That’s where I cut my teeth, right in Times Square, when I was 18 years old. My grandfather owned the building. My grandfather, John ‘Kerry’ O’Donnell, also had a place called Gaelic Park up in The Bronx where they played Irish football and hurling. It was the biggest bar in New York State at one time. It was like 250 feet, this bar. I’ve been doing this since I was five years old. My father never gave us a penny. He said, ‘You want money? You’re doing dishes at Gaelic Park.’”

What was it like tending bar in Times Square back then?
“It was the old Times Square. It really gave me an education. There was no tougher place on Earth than the old Times Square in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s—before Disney took over, before Disney ruined it, in my eyes. I tell you, if I didn’t work in Times Square, I wouldn’t be able to go anywhere in the world. You’ve got to be tough. Keep your head straight and don’t let anyone mess with you.”

What do you think makes for a good bartender?
“My father told me, ‘Listen, if you can’t stick your hand down the toilet in the fucking ladies’ room, you’re in the wrong business.’ He also said, ‘If you want to hang out with the owls, you better be ready to wake up with the eagles in the morning. I don’t give a shit what you do at night, you better be there.’ Punctuality means everything. I never miss a shift. Because if we don’t show up as a bartender, we don’t make money. Get your ass to work and make your money. All you have is yourself in this business. That’s all you have. That and a story.”

What advice would you give a bartender just entering the field?
“No cell phones. Stay off the cell phone. Don’t ever pull out a cell phone behind a bar unless it’s an emergency. You go into bars today, there are bartenders with their backs to you. I grew up with pay phones. The only reason I got a cell phone, I was going to a Rangers game one night and it was pissing raining and snowing and I couldn’t find a pay phone. I couldn’t find one. That’s when I got a phone. I have a flip phone. Because I want to talk to you, instead of texting you. Texting is lazy. And be nice. Just be nice. Say hello.”

What’s an unusual encounter you’ve had at a bar?
“At O’Donnell’s, is was all blue collar. Some guy came in one day, right by the entrance to the door. A dirtbag. And he grabbed the money off the bar from these two telephone guys. Everybody had money on the bar. I ran out of that bar and looked both ways. I didn’t see him that way. But this way, he went down the block. I got the money back. He just dropped it because I was coming up on him. That’s what we did. Nobody came in and messed with us. It was all construction workers. We cashed their checks on Thursdays. We’d run tabs for people until we cashed their checks. It was a real family place. We had a waitress in there, Betty, God bless her soul, she worked for my grandfather for 60 years. Her husband worked for us, too.”

Has bartending changed over the course of your career?
“No. Not my kind of bartending. These are steak houses. They don’t change much. You go into these cocktail bars and they’ll ask for all kinds of drinks. I can make those drinks if you want me to.”

What do you like about working at Bobby Van’s?
“This is the best location in the world. We get a lot of commuters. Do you know how many people walk through this corridor every day? You come in here and have ten minutes to catch your train, you can be sure you can get two drinks and a to-go cup.”

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