Dressed in the trappings of a lifelong metalhead and standing at a towering 6 feet, 4 inches, Jimmy Duff is easy to spot when we meet on a recent Tuesday afternoon at Tequila’s, a no-frills Mexican restaurant in Chelsea—Duff’s favorite neighborhood lunch destination. The owner and mascot of New York’s most famous (or infamous, depending on who you ask) metal bar, Duff is exactly where you might expect him to be: at the jukebox, skimming through the selections. With his band patch–emblazoned camo jacket, he draws attention amid the restaurant’s unadorned interior, but even among the sea of similarly leather- and denim-clad patrons that fill Duff’s on a nightly basis, Duff stands out.
“When Jimmy enters the bar, or anywhere else for that matter, his presence is felt in the most epic way—and it’s not just because of his stature,” says longtime Duff’s regular Andrea Zeluck. Enjoying a glass of Gato Negro white wine, her preferred brand, Zeluck points out that it’s because of Duff that they carry the wine at all. Despite the image that metal bars only serve Jack Daniel’s or PBR, when Zeluck suggested they carry her wine of choice, Duff gladly obliged. Ask anyone who knows him and they’ll share a similar story. While there might be enough heavy metal debauchery in the books to make a “Behind the Music” producer blush, the overall atmosphere of Duff’s bar is one of inclusivity.
“After 21 years, the bar for what constitutes a wild and crazy time gets higher and higher every year.”
Much of Duff’s personal life has centered around the nightlife industry and the winding path to owning his own bar, a narrow, red-lit hangout in South Williamsburg where every inch of wall space is given over to heavy metal memorabilia—photographs of Ozzy Osbourne; all access passes to Machine Head and Black Sabbath—and bar stools are often occupied by revered hard rock musicians. Hailing from South Orange, New Jersey, where he dropped out of high school at the age of 16 (“I was kind of asked to leave, actually,” he clarifies), Duff took a position as an auto body worker, until eventually enrolling at the nearby Seton Hall University, where his father had been an English professor for 37 years.
Since he was a young teenager, Duff had been taking the train into New York City to see some of his favorite musicians in the flesh. He’d catch metal and punk bands—like the original Black Flag with Henry Rollins, which he saw three times—at the Ritz and CBGB, as well as shows of a different nature all together. “I can remember going to a live sex show with my best friend, Pat, when we were 15 years old in Times Square,” recalls Duff. “And then we went to Billy’s Topless Bar over on Sixth Avenue. We’re sitting at the stage drinking long-neck Buds, 15 years old. That’s ’83. If that happened today, it would be the front page of the paper.”
Duff, now 52, describes New York in the 1980s and early ’90s as “the wild west” and “amazingly decadent.” Over Margaritas at Tequila’s, PUNCH caught up with Duff to discuss this heady time, how his eponymous bar came to be and what metal means to him.
How did you make the leap from working in bars and clubs to owning your own place?
Hell’s Kitchen Bar was a shithole in Hell’s Kitchen on Ninth Avenue, but we used to go there all the time, we loved it. I remember thinking it had so much potential.
My brother was working with a guy part-time who owned a bar and was looking for a partner to operate another bar. I asked, “What’s the name of the bar?” and he said, “Hell’s Kitchen Bar.” I made up my mind in a split second: “I’m in.” I just dove in fucking head first.
That was the beginning of Duff’s, but it was called Bellevue Bar at that time, right?
I really liked the name Hell’s Kitchen Bar, but my partner brought in someone else and they renamed it Bellevue and I was like, “OK, instead of changing it back again, we’ll just keep it.” He had another bar that he was busy with, so he just said, “Look, this is all you, do your thing.” Which is what I did. There was no marketing strategy, there was no business plan, it was just like I’m going to make a bar that I like. That was the criteria, you know?
Were there any other places for metalheads or rock fans to really gather or hang out after shows in the city at the time?
In Midtown, nothing… That’s one of the reasons Bellevue took off. A big inspiration for me was a place called the Scrap Bar that was on MacDougal Street. Being an industry person, I would go on off nights, like Tuesday or Wednesday, when it was just the hardcore crowd and not the bridge-and-tunnel kind of stuff. Iggy Pop would be at the bar drinking, and it was cool, people wouldn’t bother him. That was a long time ago.
What was the journey of Bellevue Bar to Duff’s, from Hell’s Kitchen to Williamsburg?
Bellevue started in 1999 during the post-Giuliani cleanup of Times Square. A lot of those people just got pushed over to Ninth Avenue, so you know… Half a block away from us was Port Authority, around the corner was a parole board, a porno store, a liquor store. There were literally crack vials out on the sidewalk. It was a “gritty” neighborhood at the time.
I had a partner there, and there was a falling out for a variety of reasons. I moved the business in 2004 and got a place in Williamsburg on the north side. The idea was never to name it Duff’s. One of the things I liked about Bellevue was that no one knew it was my bar. I could hang out and party. It was never about being the center of attention or the focal point. But, we were moving from being by Times Square and Port Authority where you’ve got thousands of people walking by every day to a block off the waterfront in Williamsburg where there’s zero foot traffic. So it was named Duff’s because maybe people would make the connection that it was Jimmy Duff from Bellevue. That was a good way to jump-start it.
You’re on the south side of Williamsburg now, does this neighborhood seem like home for Duff’s?
The bar business is funny, people come and go. If we had kept every customer we ever had, there wouldn’t be room for everyone. New York is transient to a certain extent. People come in, they live here, and then they get married and they move to Connecticut and they do this or that, and they move on. But there’s always young people ready to replace them.
Do want to keep doing this forever?
Absolutely. I still love it, but I am a little bit burned out. After 21 years, the bar for what constitutes a wild and crazy time gets higher and higher every year.
Duff’s is, of course, a metal bar, but along with the sort of wild reputation that might come with that, it’s the go-to hangout for a core of regulars and a spot that tourists seek out. What makes Duff’s such an attraction?
It’s a very welcoming environment. That started at Bellevue. Bellevue would have bus drivers, pimps, almost-homeless people, punk rockers, retirees, metalheads, suits. Everybody just had a good time. That’s what it’s all about. It’s all about inclusiveness. If you’re cool, let’s hang. If you’re not, we’ll get you the fuck out of there. People have this misconception about metalheads, but metalheads are generally the realest, coolest people you’re going to meet.
Duff’s crowd also frequently includes some pretty famous musicians in the rock and heavy metal world. What do you think has helped make it essentially the designated after-party spot for whatever band is playing in town that night?
If you were at Taco Bell and Kerry King [of Slayer] walked in, you’d be like, “Holy fucking shit.” But here at Duff’s, it’s like, “Oh, that makes sense.” With these guys, they’re at home, really. The bar’s just kind of a walk through metal history.
Speaking of heavy metal history, the bar’s décor basically makes for a rock museum. Is that a never-ending project?
It started with bands coming in and saying, “Hey man, we just played a gig, and here’s a drum head or cymbal we signed.” And like anything else in my life, it’s just kind of fucking snowballed to nothing in moderation. There’s new stuff coming in all the time.
I view the bar as kind of like a person in a way, with a personality. As a human, you try to be better every year or every week, every day, really. So to me, the challenge in having the bar is to always improve it and make it better and make it interesting and make it special.
The stereotype is, anywhere in the world, if you go to a rock bar, here’s what you can usually expect: covered in graffiti, tons of shitty band stickers all over the fucking place. I feel like rock fans or metal fans deserve better.
Do any milestone moments stand out to you from over the course of Duff’s history?
I can tell you one that was magical for me. It was at the old spot—it was like 6 o’clock, and the sun was coming up, and at the old place, we had a deck. So I was sitting on the deck, and I had the door open, and I was playing Ozzy Osbourne’s Diary of a Madman. I love Ozzy. I’m a huge Randy Rhoads freak as well. And just playing it at full volume, sitting out there watching the sun come up and drinking a beer. I thought to myself, “This is it. This is as good as it gets, man.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.