Theme Magazine - UK, February 2002
WHAT MAKES A GREAT BAR?
I was teaching my class called Home Mixology at the Institute for Culinary Education and one of the participants asked me what makes a great bar. It wasn't the first time I have been asked that question but as I began to answer with the standard ...great drinks, great service …I stopped myself and decided to think a bit deeper before giving a formula answer. I know what makes a great drink, but what makes a great bar is not as tangible. Detailed planning of design, menu, pricing, training a staff all that careful thought by a savvy owner is part of it and so is luck, but beyond all that bars develop a character of their own over time that can't be forced or created, but it can be nurtured.
The first great bar and grill I experienced was the original Charlie O's in Rockefeller center. It was 1968, and I was in town for the New Year to join the crunch in Times Square. CharlieO's was a Restaurant Associates creation when the legendary Restaurateur Joe Baum was at the helm. It was one of the most successful bars in the city, a perfect example of a great New York bar and grill. Charley O's had a long bar of dark Mahogany along the east wall with beautiful oval windows looking out on Rockefeller plaza and 48th street. Just inside the door on the right was the smaller sandwich bar with roasted meats, turkey and roast beef and brisket as well as big bowls of soused shrimp etc. The walls were covered with life-size photographs of famous characters from writers to politicians to villains each with an appropriate quote from the individual that referred to drink or the drinking life. The pictures were so popular, people came in just to walk through the dining room and view the pictures. There was Abraham Lincoln urging "Find out what Grant drinks and send a case of it to all of my generals!" or the chronically uncomfortable Oscar Levant complaining: "I don't drink, I don't like it…it makes me feel good". It was a wonderful hang out, a bar for everyone; gamblers, ad men, writers, politicians…Senator Pat Moynihan threw his yearly St. Paddy's breakfast there. It was at one of those St. Paddy's breakfasts that Bobby Kennedy announced his candidacy for president of the United States.
So what makes a great bar? What is it that draws people back again and again? Here are some of the tangible elements, and if you get them right, the rest may just fall into place over time.
Surroundings of Substance That doesn't have to mean expensive and highly designed. A neighborhood joint can have surroundings of substance. My first neighborhood bar in NYC was Paddy McGlades, a one hundred-year-old gem on the corner of 68th and Columbus across the street from ABC News and an ABC soap opera studio. The ceiling consisted of beautifully painted glass squares framed with mahogany. Even as they aged and peeled the effect was enhanced. Over the bar among the shillelagh, just above the old National cash register was a blow-up of a photo finish at Aqueduct racetrack of a triple heat to win. The photograph was a gift to the bartender of thirty-five years, ( Al aka "The Bishop") from the ABC news crew who used McGlades as their living room. The Beveled glass mirrors reflected a big round institutional clock with the numbers backwards so you could read the time in the mirror without turning around. On the wall across the room from the bar an artist who probably needed to pay off his bar bill painted a marvelous mural that included many of the long time regulars and employees and even a special race horse that Al won a load of money on. The mural was so wonderful that after McGlades closed, the new tenant left part of the mural intact. (ABC had planned on tearing down the building but instead leased it to Starbucks Coffee shop) …moan
A Proprietor: A proprietor sets the tone of the place. It can be the owner, or a partner, even a long time trusted employee who is a presence. I don't mean mister hail-fellow well met; there is staff hired for that sort of thing. I mean a presence that the regulars can nod to across the room, and point out to the neophytes "there's the owner" and once in a while he does the right thing by a table of regulars. His being there makes everything work better, the staff for obvious reasons, but also because they see the owner's pride and involvement and feel some of the same. They give more to the place in a hundred different ways. I remember sitting in PJ Clarks years ago and pointing out the owner, Danny Lavezzo to my guests and telling the stories about his legendary bets at the track and the easy way he had with everyone from Frank Sinatra to the Chinese busboy on duty.
The Bartender: The man who makes you want to stay too long and come back again and again. That is the job in a nutshell. It is the why that is the secret. His drinks are good and he is fast, while still being a part of conversations up and down the bar about everything under the sun from sports scores, to a restaurant location, to a pep-talk for an out of work pal. He opens and closes the place, handles the money, tips out the staff. If the owner sets the tone, the bartender projects it to the clientele. The bar is the engine of the place and the bartender is the engineer. The bartender is many of things to many people and the person who does that job has to be at peace with that role and secure in his/her own identity.
The customers: In the final analysis, what really makes a place is the people who walk through the door. They define and re-define the place from day to day and from year to year. They are what drew me to this profession, and they are what draw me to the long list of bars I visit over and over again as well as the many others I have yet to visit before my time runs out. Cheers and turn out the lights when you leave.
Dale Five Great Barsin New York City: PJ Clarkes- 915 Third Ave (at 55st) Don't wait too long this old Saloon may not be around muck longer. King Cole Bar- at the St. Regis Hotel (55th and 5th Ave) Have a Martini sitting under the newly restored triptych by Maxfield Parrish that has smiled down on three classic New York bars since the turn of the century. Bridge Café-279 Water Street (under the Brooklyn Bridge) This place has been serving food and drink since the 18th century…and that is saying a lot for upstarts like us on this side of the Atlantic. Pravda -281 Lafayette Street (Just below Houston) Transplanted Londoner Keith McNally got it all right when he opened this subterranean vodka bar five years ago, and it gets better all the time. Pete's Tavern- 129 east 18th Street Located just a block south of one of New York Cities most beautiful squares Gramercy Park, this bar hasn't changed since O' Henry sat at the bar and scratched out his Masterpiece Gift of the Magi.
Five Greats in London: American Bar at the Savoy Hotel- Strand WC2 Peter Dorelli protects the traditions of the former master Harry Craddock while at the same time creating some new ones of his own. Dukes Hotel Bar- 35 St James Place, London SW1 Gilberto Pretti still has a lot to teach the young barmen of England…are they paying attention? Groucho Club-44Dean Street W1 Find a member or become one and join the family. They got a bit grouchy when we sang around the piano one night but they didn't stop us. If you want to write a book or make a movie this is not a bad hang. Le Shaker at Nam Long 159 Old Brompton Road SW3 They still make great fresh fruit cocktails albiet a bit pricey. The Library at the Lanesborough- Hyde Park Corner SW1 Salvatore is the ultimate host/barman in the city and presides over a one of a kind library selection of old Cognac and Armagnac.