LLR Books

Saloon Secrets

Landmark West, an Upper West Side preservation group, sponsored a talk recently on the Irish bars in the neighborhood by Jef Klein, an historian of bars and the author of a handsome coffee table tome on the subject, "The History and Stories of the Best Bars of New York."

Appropriately enough, the event was held at the Dublin House on West 79th Street, a watering hole with which I'm not entirely unfamiliar. Even those who have never set foot in the place may recognize its welcoming neon harp sign hanging over its front steps.

I couldn't make the lecture but I managed to connect with Ms. Klein last week at the White Horse Tavern. That institution, to the best of my knowledge, wouldn't be considered an Irish bar, but boasts a similar range of refreshments. In the meantime, I picked up a copy of her book and realized we had much to discuss. Irish bars, it turns out, are only a small part of her practice. Among those celebrated on the pages of "Best Bars" are several saloons where I've spent profitable evenings—starting in the tender post-college years and stretching all the way to, well, probably the week before last.

These included the Ear Inn (the sight of a formative date with my future wife); Fanelli Café, one of the last links to the SoHo of old and deserving of National Register of Historic Places recognition (if it hasn't already received it); J.G. Melon, whose burgers warrant similar landmark status; and the Old Town Bar and Restaurant.

Before we convened at the White Horse—another of the bars in the book—I decided to undertake some research on the subject. This consisted mainly of trying to come up with a question or two that would test the depth of Ms. Klein's knowledge.

I believe I managed to think of only one: Did she remember Chumley's? As it turns out, it's also profiled in "Best Bars of New York," but I didn't realize that at the time. For those unfamiliar with the place, which, tragically, closed in 2007 after its chimney collapsed, it was a former speakeasy that managed to retain much of its clandestine, Prohibition-era allure. There was a conventional entrance at 86 Bedford St., but more fun was arriving through a hidden courtyard off Barrow Street.

According to Ms. Klein's research, after Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald's wedding reception, the party moved on to Chumley's, where the couple was rumored to have consummated their marriage at Table 7. I have no idea whether that's true. However, I can testify from my own experience that Chumley's dark recesses lent themselves to misbehavior.

"Were you ever there when they had to change a keg?" Ms. Klein inquired. I can't say I was. Then again, I can't say I wasn't. I undoubtedly had other things on my mind besides the supply chain, just as long as the malted barley and hops stream continued unabated. "They had a trap door in the floor. It was one of the escapes during Prohibition days. So they would keep the kegs down there."

Among the other nuggets of nostalgia the author shared:

• A pistol was found in the chimney at the Ear Inn when the place was renovated.

• The Bridge Café on Water Street is the oldest bar in New York, selling liquor from the site since 1794, even illegally during prohibition.. "Don't tell McSorley's," she said.

• There was a tunnel at the White Horse, apparently just below where Ms. Klein was now sipping a "Lady's Pint" of beer. She explained that during the 19th century the West Village attracted a rougher crowd than it does today; no Magnolia Bakery or Lulu Guinness boutique back then. "The tunnel was not just for the Underground Railroad," she stated. "Most every bar was doing something illegal—stolen goods, hiding somebody on the lam. It wasn't Boulud. In the 1800s outside the White Horse the baby carriages would be four deep after Mass."

While researching her book, Ms. Klein said that she'd visit bars with several standard questions, among them: "What about the box next to the baseball bat?" By that she meant neglected bar-related memorabilia, dating back generations. At one Chelsea tavern, she said, the owner opened the box and found a telegram from his father to his mother announcing that he'd been wounded in World War II.

I was more interested in the baseball bat. "You always keep a baseball bat in case things get busy," Ms. Klein stated delicately. She knows her subject, and her peace-making equipment, having worked 14 years as a bartender, waitress and restaurant union organizer in New York and New Jersey, before turning to bar-themed literature. Her current book project involves New Jersey bar bands of the 1970s.

She boasted that she'd led a successful worker strike in the 1980s after the owner of the New Brunswick restaurant where she was employed tried to pay the busboys in cocaine. "You just can't do that," she explained.

To be honest, as interesting as all this trivia was, I'm not much of a history buff, even a bar history buff. I'm more interested in the recreational here and now. I floated by her my theory that a bar such as Bemelmans at the Carlyle Hotel, one of those detailed in her book, may actually be more economical than someplace like the White Horse or the Dublin Inn. At the latter bars, they serve drinks in thick-sided glasses that create the illusion of plenty but find themselves in urgent need of replenishment after only a few miserly sips. At a respectable hotel bar, on the other hand, they may change $15 or even $20 for a drink, but they typically don't scrimp on the alcohol.

"It's called a rocks glass," Ms. Klein explained of the standard vessel, and former bartender that she is, she didn't sound entirely sympathetic to my cause.