NEW YORK — Jim is an optometrist with an office in Murray Hill. He’s also a hobby chess player who, a few decades ago, had a chance to play Bobby Fisher. On a frigid Friday, he described the game to me as a conversation of ideas and told me how his father, also an optometrist, would take him to his office to help grind eyeglass lenses by hand. Then he called over the bartender, bought me a Guinness, and waxed poetic a little more.
I met Jim on a recent freezing night at Molly’s Shabeen, a pub on Third Avenue at East 22d Street with a Tudoresque façade, low-ceilings, sawdust on the floor, and no website to speak of. Jim has been coming pretty much every Friday since 1965. Sometimes he comes for lunch, sits at the bar, and plays out a few classic chess games on a tattered chess board.
I had stopped in for lunch just a few days before and fell into conversation with Peter O’Connell, the owner, a conversationalist in high classic Irish order and a native of County Meath (“The nicest county — the royal county,” he’s quick to note). He bought the bar in 1990 after years of bartending, which he regrets having to give up.
“It’s a real pub. When drink flows and the craic starts and all the characters are around, the shy guy will do a recitation and the guy who can’t sing sings,” he says. “I love a dysfunctional bar. Everybody from hippies to punks are here — Joe Strummer would come in here.”
He’s a Civil War history buff, thus you’ll find paintings of battle scenes on the wall alongside framed poems by Yeats, which hang as ceremoniously as the Constitution in a courtroom. And he’s quick to let you in on the secret to Molly’s: Nothing has changed in 30-some years, not the menu, the staff, or the decor.
As gentrification has come to define New York, stripping it of much of its old-world grit and charm, punk rock institutions like CBGBs and Mars Bar have dependably generated outpourings of public lamentation when they shuttered. But to many New Yorkers, the neighborhood bars — particularly of Irish persuasion — have been among the most deeply-felt casualties. A species on the fast track to extinction, old family-run establishments are giving way to Starbucks and banks. Keeping tabs on the closings is something of a parlor game for New Yorkers, and the reigning champion is Jeremiah Moss, obsessive and prolific blogger (www.vanishingnewyork.blogspot.com )at Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, where, since 2001, he’s been chronicling stores, bars, and restaurants as they shutter.
Jeremiah declined my offer to meet, as he blogs pseudonymously, but when I reached him on the phone, he explained how, like so many matters of survival of the fittest, this one, too, is a case of staking out territory. That’s to say: It helps to own the real estate.
Jeremiah recommended I head to Peter McManus Cafe, which is adorned with photos, a painted portrait, and newspaper clippings about James Joseph McManus, who opened the bar in 1911 and moved it to its current location (on Seventh Avenue at 19th Street, in Chelsea) in 1936. Today it’s run by his grandson James, known to clientele as Jimbo, and his son Justin bartends a few times a week.
On a snowy Friday afternoon, the bartender-curated soundtrack — The Clash, The Who, The Ramones — was as timeless as the menu, a roster of unfussy sandwiches and burgers, all at throwback prices. My generously stacked pastrami sandwich clocked in at $9.95. I caught up with Jimbo, who explained that it’s called a “cafe” because his grandmother didn’t like being associated with the word “bar,” but today they just call it “the store.” A steel kitchen sink is emblazoned with the old Union-made insignia. Just one thing is modernized: The vintage cash register got more keys because it wasn’t designed to ring in prices higher than $9.99.
To describe McManus is to describe the look and feel that so many new bars in the city aim to create. New bars can have the pressed tin ceilings and retro chandeliers, but the one thing you cannot get on eBay is soul. That’s exactly what you can find at Brooklyn Inn, which I was introduced to about a year ago by a friend who lived up the street (Hoyt Street in Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill neighborhood). She begged me not to write about the place, but there are few secrets in the Internet age.
There’s a majesty to be found at this bar, which, when it opened in 1885 in a circa-1851 townhouse, was the nicest in the neighborhood. It has high ceilings, original stained glass windows, and Tom, a burly yet soft-spoken bartender who evokes the no-nonsense yet personable saloon keeper of pre-Prohibition America. He’s quick to pull a pint or mix a top-rate Manhattan or have a chat.
“It’s still what it was always meant to be here: a working class saloon, nothing fancy or elegant. You can feel time, feel the souls passing across the bar. Nothing too exciting happens here. We’re just slugging through during the years, getting older,” he says.
Freewheeling chitchat is a signature of Ray and Tommy, two of the bartenders at Neary’s, an Irish restaurant in Midtown East (at 57th Street and First Avenue). Ray, who grew up in the South Bronx, calls the water “city gin,” greets longtime habitués as they walk in (“Hi, Blossom,” “Hi, Grace”), and, if you get on his good side, he might sing you a shanty that he wrote called “Christmas on a Train.”
Jimmy Neary bought the place in 1986, having bartended there since 1967. He’s there every night, and his daughter, a partner at Goldman Sachs, still waitresses most weekends. Four other waitresses have tenures between 32 and 48 years. The carpeted, low-key dining room doesn’t come across as a celebrity hangout, but presumably that’s precisely what notable figures like about it. Kathy Lee Gifford, a regular, has invited Jimmy onto her show for several of her birthdays to serve her lamb chops. Mary Higgins Clark mentions Jimmy in 21 of her mysteries. Former mayor Michael Bloomberg is such a fan that he once took Jimmy in his private plane to Jimmy’s hometown in County Cork for the day. And the walls are festooned with signed portraits of presidents. Many of them have stopped by on St. Patrick’s Day.
“People say I could make a lot of money on rent,” says Jimmy, who owns the building. “I don’t know what I’d do with the money. I like golf, but I can’t play golf my whole life. I love coming in here. I love the people. I love this life.”Liza Weisstuch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.