Things don’t change much at Donohue’s Steak House, the tiny Manhattan chophouse nestled in the middle of a block of small, independent businesses on Lexington Avenue in the mid-60s. Inside, with its small collection of leather booths, black-and-white-checked floor and chalkboard menu of traditional surf-and-turf specials, it might as well be 1950, the year the restaurant opened.
That timeless quality extends to the bar as well, where Tom Riley, a service industry veteran born in Northern Ireland, has been mixing up dozens of Martinis and Manhattans nightly for nearly a decade, stirring them down in pint glasses, which then serve as makeshift sidecars. Trim and silver-haired, he looks the part of the old-school New York bartender in his neat-as-a-pin Donohue’s bartender uniform of black slacks, white button-down shirt and long, neat tie.
Donohue’s enjoys a brisk trade most nights, with nearly every booth booked in advance, so the seats at the bar fill up quickly once Riley begins his shift at 5 o’clock. After that, he is rarely at rest, mixing drinks, pouring glasses of wine, laying down place settings and taking food orders for lamb chops and shepherd’s pie from the guests. (Almost everyone at the bar dines as well as drinks.) When he has a couple minutes of downtime, he exchanges a few words with customers, most of whom he knows by name, and whose numbers include writers, ad execs, financiers, retirees and the occasional movie star. They all know his name, too: Tom. Don’t call him Mr. Riley. “Mr. Riley is dead,” he’ll say.
How did you find your way behind the bar?
I moved to the city in 1970. Bartender was my first job when I came to New York. I just pounded the pavement until I found something. I started out at a place long gone, the Green Derby. The same people owned a few places and I moved over to Flanagan’s on the Upper East Side. It was big in popularity, about three times the size of Donohue’s physically. That was the start of my glorious career.
How did you get the job at Donohue’s?
The place I worked before had closed. I was looking for work and I knew Maureen [the owner of Donohue’s] was looking for help. So it was a marriage made in heaven.
What do you think makes for a good bartender?
I think basically it’s talking, listening to the people and talking to them when you can. I have a little bit of rapport with the customers here. At Donohue’s, we have 75 percent regular customers. It’s a huge neighborhood place, but [there are] also people who come in who are not from the neighborhood.
What advice would you give a bartender just entering the field?
It’s so different today. But, I think it would be the same advice as I said before: Get to know your customers. It’s not all about making drinks. To me, anybody can make a drink. It’s the banter back and forth.
Donohue’s gets a fair number of celebrities, doesn’t it?
Yes. Drew Barrymore is fairly a bit of a regular. Gay Talese, I had him just the other night. He’s a regular. He ate at the bar. You get that a lot, single people eating at the bar. Cardinal Dolan comes in.
What do people like to drink?
Look down the bar and what do you see? Everybody seems to have a Martini glass in front of them. Martinis and Manhattans.
Do you ever get unusual drink orders?
Not much. I still think the traditional cocktails are the way to go. Proper gin Martinis and vodka Martinis—vodka being second, of course—and a good Manhattan. Manhattans are very popular at the bar. I’m an old-school guy. I know all the old drinks. People come in and ask for an old drink and look at me to see if I know it or not. No problem.