I was teaching my class called “Home Mixology” at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York and one of the participants asked me what makes a great bar. It isn’t the first time I was 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. Luck is part of it, planning and details thought out by a caring owner, sure, but bars develop a character of their own; some over time others almost as soon as they open.
PJ Clarke’s in New York City has been a magnet for patrons from around the world for over half a century and a working bar since the nineteenth century. The walls are covered with paintings and photographs some of which haven’t been touched in a hundred years. The dirt and dust stalactites that hung from the lights and shillelaghs behind the bar were finally dusted off the last time the place changed hands.
The Lavezzo family who owned Clarke’s for years operated an antique shop above the bar when the current owner put it on the market in 1948. Young Danny Lavezzo decided he would like to run the place and they took over the business that year. The timing was right. The war was over and United States was sailing full steam ahead into a booming economy; everyone was in the mood for a good time! Almost overnight the place was packed. Danny had a way with people and he believed that you don’t make money by locking the doors so he remained open every hour of every day that the law would allow—365 days a year, only closing at four in the morning to sweep and mop for a couple hours. Clarke’s became the ultimate nightcap destination in a city that just didn’t want to go to sleep.
In the height of Clarke’s popularity, Frank Sinatra had his own table and used a separate entrance on the 55th street side of the building that entered directly into the dining room to avoid walking through the bar. The back room was the inner sanctum. In my first ten years as a Clarke’s patron, I never made it to the back room. Even if I had made it I couldn’t have afforded to tip the maitre’d, let alone pay the check!. During baseball season the tables were peppered with players and umps. If there was a movie premier or a Broadway opening, Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole might be in the middle of a drinking contest.
I was a front bar customer and that suited me fine. Across from the bar was a sandwich counter where some claim the first hamburgers in the United States were served, which, like most bar lore, was just bravado. But they were good! Those little babies came off the grill incognito on a paper plate with a large slice of onion hiding under the bun; but the meat was the best available on the market and they were cooked to perfection. There was a hamburger stand across from the bar in the front room and no one with any class left the back or the front room without laying a tip on the hamburger man…he did almost as well as the waiters! And no one ordered just the burger because the chef made the most amazing crispy home fried potatoes, and a real Caesar Salad.
Frank Conefry was one of the mainstays behind the front bar in those days and lore had it that in the 1960s and 1970s he was bringing down a princely $500.00 a night. He built a church in his hometown in Ireland, so they said! The place was so crowded that two bouncers were stationed on either side of the door like the Pillars of Hercules wearing sport coats two sizes too small to emphasize their powerful presence. A troublemaker was flanked on both sides by these gentle giants and deposited on the sidewalk before he knew what was up.
The place would suddenly become electric as the word spread instantly that Sinatra, or Judy Garland, or Lauren Bacall, or all three, had slid in the back entrance. The front bar regulars would look bored by the news—so what’s the big deal—while the neophytes could barely control their bladders!