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McHale’s Was a Real New York Bar

The Theater District bar, which closed in 2006, was the sort of working class place that no longer exists in Times Square, or in the city as a whole.

When McHale’s Bar closed in January, 2006, I was so angry I started a blog.

It was called Lost City and for about nine years I used it as a soapbox to rail against the gentrification and homogenization of the city I lived in and loved, New York. During that time, I lamented and eulogized the loss of many a classic tavern, restaurant, building and business. Sadly, I never lacked for material.

But, somehow, no loss ever hurt as much as that first one.

McHale’s stood on the northeast corner of West 46th Street and Eighth Avenue, on the border between Hell’s Kitchen and the Theater District. I was a theater journalist then and took most of my pre-show meals at McHale’s. Critics striving to carve out a reputation for themselves ate a block away, at Joe Allen’s and Orso, in hopes that, by sheer proximity, they might be considered the equals of the stage stars that sat a table or two over.

But the theater writers who truly knew their place and understood their wallet went to McHale’s. (I knew one old-school theater reporter who opened his mail there daily.) Beers cost $4 and the famous hamburgers were $10, though, at 14 ounces and roughly the size of a Frisbee, they should have cost more. The burgers were justly famous. Even today, any discussion of McHale’s begins with the burger. The key to their excellence may have been consistency. For 35 years, they were fried up in the small basement kitchen by the same man, a Peruvian cook named Italo Huaringa.

McHale’s was a theater bar. That couldn’t be helped. It stood mere yards from a dozen Broadway theaters. But it was a working class theater bar, the sort of joint that no longer exists in Times Square. You would see the occasional celebrity there, like Brian Dennehy or Ed Harris. But it was more a home to stagehands and journeyman actors only a true theater geek would recognize. The wait staff was composed of aspiring actresses who exhibited the kind of personality and sass you always imagined hash-slingers in Times Square would.

It was also a hockey bar, though few theater people probably realized that. Jimmy McHale, who was raised in the bar and inherited it from his father (a bartender, also called Jimmy McHale, who started working at the bar, previously called The Gaiety Cafe, in 1947), slapped the puck around in his youth and retained an enthusiasm for the sport. Boyish looking even into his late 40s and built like a fireplug, he often wore a hockey jersey to work. The knifes in the kitchen were honed with an ice-skate sharpener.

But, above all, McHale’s was a real New York bar, a real bar bar, a neighborhood joint so good at being itself that it slowly lurched into the iconic. More than anything, it simply looked the part, from the angled, deco-ish entrance to the gorgeous, wraparound, red-and-green neon sign that hugged the building (“Steaks,” “Wines & Liquors,” “Air-Conditioned”) to the busted old, semi-circular, red-leather banquettes in the back dining room. The long bar was from the 1939 World’s Fair. Opposite it was a row of booths, popular and almost impossible to snag. They were lent a film-noir feeling by wooden Venetian blinds that looked like they had been there forever, but were actually installed for a Jerry Seinfeld American Express commercial shot in the 1990s. During the day, the place could look a bit bereft, as if the bar itself was blinking its eyes, trying to wake up. But, after sundown, there was no cozier place in Midtown. As one regular once commented, the darker it got, the better McHale’s looked. Just as a bar should.

Even before it closed, the neighborhood had begun to realize that McHale’s was a gem worth cherishing and one it might lose to the moneyed interests that were quickly overrunning the area. When Mel Brooks’ smash musical “The Producers” opened in 2001, one of the neon signs depicted in its Theater District stage set, alongside Sardi’s and the usual Broadway marquees, was McHale’s. But it was too late. The McHale family never owned the building they occupied. Jimmy McHale had a handshake deal with the landlord. When someone offered $30 million to raze the building and erect the sterile, 43-story condo tower that stands there today, McHale’s was out. (The steel-and-glass eyesore is called the Platinum, in all seriousness.)

Jimmy McHale kept a dry eye. “You can’t stop progress,” he told the New York Post. “It’s New York City.” He put the bar in storage and talked briefly about reopening in another location. But it never happened. The “McHale’s” half of the neon sign turned up in a Chelsea antique store in 2007. (It recently resurfaced on eBay.) Another section of the sign was bought by the owner of Emmett O’Lunney’s on West 50th Street; it hangs there today. The chef moved on to Rendezvous, an eatery across Eighth Avenue, and for a time that place advertised McHale’s burgers on its menu. But soon enough, Rendezvous closed as well and the burgers passed into history.

In 2012, hope stirred briefly in the hearts of New Yorkers when a new bar named McHale’s opened on West 51st Street. Perhaps Jimmy had returned. But no—it was just an opportunist trading off the storied name. The bar, a run-of-the-mill Irish pub with a faux-posh patina, is still there. I don’t recommend it.

After McHale’s closed, I went to Cafe Edison for cheap eats and Jimmy’s Corner for cheap beers. Then the Edison closed. Jimmy’s Corner is thankfully still around. But I don’t go to Times Square much anymore. The layer of grit that told you all were welcome was scrubbed away long ago and replaced with a carpet of tourists and Elmos and a forlorn pedestrian mall, one of “Luxury City” Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s most regrettable legacies.

None of it feels like New York. Being in McHale’s did. It was dark, it was moody, it was lively and it was full of characters. It was unpretentious and open to the anonymous. It made you feel like you belonged in Manhattan, no matter what rung of the ladder you occupied or where you hailed from. I once crammed twenty Midwestern relatives into the back room. The food, the prices, the homey atmosphere—they couldn’t be believe their luck. Could tough old New York be this kind, this generous, this relaxed? It could, once. McHale’s always gave you a rich experience for pocket change.

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