I spent my senior year at SUNY’s University at Albany drinking at a bar called the Palais Royale. It was neither palatial nor royal.
The Palais, as we called it, was a narrow, dimly lit townie joint in downtown Albany, far from campus but not far from the bus depot. There, minors were served vodka in dirty shot glasses and the jukebox was stocked with 45s, mostly mournful 1950s country and Western tunes. If you got hungry, you could choose between cans of Dinty Moore stew or pans of Jiffy Pop; both would be cooked on a hot-plate behind the bar.
But the main attraction was Rocky Nigro, the pint-sized octogenarian bartender and proprietor of the Palais Royale. Rocky was a legend, “the biggest little man” among fellow tavern owners, who presided from behind the extra-long bar. If you stayed late enough, he might start telling tales about the time Prohibition-era bootlegger Legs Diamond paid him 15 cents for a shoeshine.
I only found the Palais because a local led me there; I had enrolled in a creative writing class held in the evening, which meant that it had its share of actual adults with actual jobs squeezing in a night class alongside full-time students like me. After class, conversations would continue at the Palais, punctuated by filterless Camels and vodka.
To me, the Palais was a gritty respite from the aggressively bright, TGI Fridays-esque sports bars favored by the frat-bro crowd. In true dive-bar fashion, it opened at noon and closed… eventually. On my darkest days, I’d skip class and take the bus downtown to a table in the back of the Palais, where I’d scrawl in my notebook and eavesdrop on the Vietnam vets at the bar complaining to Rocky and drinking away the afternoon light.
A couple of decades have passed since then. In August, I returned to Albany, and the Palais Royale. Rocky, of course, is no longer there. He passed away in 2004, at the age of 94, and it’s a testament to him that the Palais is still there, now under new management.
According to his obituary in the Albany Times-Union, Rocky—his proper first name was Victoroco—was one of the oldest licensed tavern owners in the state, opening the Palais Royale in 1930 with his father. The nifty trick of obtaining a rare liquor license during the Prohibition years sparked speculation about Mafia connections—a perception Rocky was happy to embrace.
The first Palais was on lower Jefferson, replaced in the 1960s by the concrete sprawl of the Empire State Plaza. The Palais then moved a few blocks uptown to its current location at 164 Jefferson, where it remains today, tucked away on a residential side street. It’s easy to miss, marked only by a square white sign and a couple of neon-lit beer logos crowded into the small front window. Inside, a wooden bar spans the length of the front room, and a pool table and crummy piano missing a few discolored keys fill out the back area.
After Rocky’s death the bar closed for a while, prompting Albany’s now-defunct alt-weekly Metroland (which, in 2001, dubbed it the “Best Old-Timer’s Bar”) to give the Palais a posthumous “Best Dive Bar (Lifetime Achievement Award),” aptly describing its atmosphere as “part mom’s basement, part Elks lodge, and all class.”
When I walk in late on a Friday afternoon, the first thing I notice are the photos of Rocky hanging on the wall: black-and-white shots of him posing with his car, with his much-taller sister (who I remember working behind the bar—then an older woman with glasses and missing some teeth), standing outside the Palais, along with plaques and congratulatory letters from various Albany civic organizations. Positioned in satellite formation around a board listing “Beers of NY,” it is a shrine to all the things that mattered most in Rocky’s life. Two decades later, I wish I’d spent more time listening to his stories.
Today, every surface, including the ceiling, is still covered in cozy, light-swallowing dark wood, now accented with rosy pink uplighting behind the bar. The same familiar beer stank and chipped linoleum remain, and Rocky’s famed collection of mugs and decanters fills out all available shelving behind and around the bar; I’m seated at direct eye-level across from a ceramic mug shaped like a pair of voluptuous breasts.
The tables in the back where I once skulked are gone, replaced by a green-felted pool table. And the enormous jukebox that played vinyl and took up half of the back room is now a flashy wall-mounted model that plays an odd mash-up of Guns N’ Roses, late-90s dance music and dad rock. The only remnant of the old juke playlist is Patsy Cline’s Greatest Hits, but that mournful twang isn’t on the soundtrack this afternoon.
The vets have been replaced by young men in their 20s and 30s, who straggle in after work and order beers at the bar as a Jaws marathon plays on the flat-screen TVs that have sprouted around the bar. “Have you tried this new place yet?”, says one of the young guys seated at the end of the bar. “They put beer in a blender with ice and some other stuff. They’re epic.”
The drinks at the Palais have changed with the times: well vodka shots and canned Bud have given way to a laminated cocktail menu and local craft brews—there’s even a tequila-based Negroni (“Teqroni”) on the menu. I order a bourbon and ginger and one of the Jiffy Pop pans, which are still hung in rows on the wall behind the bar. “We go through these like crazy at night,” the bartender confirms. A few minutes later, a familiar tin foil dome bursting with popcorn is sitting on the bar next to my drink.
After leaving Albany, I make a beeline for Manhattan, where businesses the size and age of the Palais are rarely left standing for long. This past year I’ve seen dozens of small buildings ripped up to make room for skyscrapers, leaving me with an increasing feeling of disorientation among the city’s now gap-toothed avenues. Returning to the Palais and finding it intact was a balm.
It doesn’t matter so much that Rocky was no longer there and that a new generation had taken over the bar stools. The soul of the place still watches from his spot on the wall. And he wouldn’t care if they ordered Teqronis or frozen beer cocktails, as long as they paid their bar tabs on time.