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9/11 One woman's steps to normality

A closer look at some favorite New York pubs

My office is in a free-standing building that was originally the brewhouse of a neighborhood pub. I live next door. When I'm working in my office, I try to break for lunch at a regular hour. It is one of the minor rituals that bring a vestige of structure to a disordered life. On 9/11/2001, I switched on the radio to catch the 1 p.m. news: "Reports are coming in of a plane having crashed into the World Trade Center..."

I, for once, was safely in London, but my partner and daughter were in Manhattan. I knew the name of their hotel, but did not know where it was (It turned out to be in the lower 20s). Phones to New York were not working. It was three hours before I had news of their safety, four before we spoke, and another five days before they finally arrived home.

During those strange days in New York, my partner felt that the first significant steps toward normality were when, on impulse, she went into a pub and had a beer.

She appears as "a woman friend" in an article on New York pubs, which was commissioned by the Italian magazine Slow Wine. The article appeared in issue No. 3, earlier this year, as part of a series I have been writing about drinking in different cities.

The Irish Ingredient

Roman Catholic countries see a natural appetite for food and drink as an opportunity for enjoyment ("A meal without wine is like a day without sunshine"); the Protestant nations find it hard to shake off the warning label (What you are about to receive is a necessity; we have tried to make it look and taste as plain as possible; don' t take too much; be grateful; don't be seen frivolously enjoying it). Across the Atlantic, Puritan pilgrims are remembered as the founding fathers of the United States, yet this is the land of conspicuous consumption.

From the Protestant cities of Leiden, in Holland, and Plymouth, in England, the Pilgrims set sail. Because they had run out of beer, they went ashore in what became known as Massachusetts, instead of going on to Virginia as they had planned.

The industrious, entrepreneurial, Dutch and English were the first brewers in what is now the United States, but they needed Catholics to grant a licence for enjoyment. The Irish influence seems to me the vital ingredient in the classic American saloon.

While the other Catholic nations of Europe are in the wine-growing South, Ireland is Northern: it grows barley to brew and distil. In Catholic Ireland, to serve beer is to follow a proud profession; a publican is a host. Even in Britain, the best publicans often turn out to Irish.

Once the Irish had arrived in America, there was someone to serve the beer with a flourish that suggested its consumption might be pleasurable.

Once the Irish had arrived in America, there was someone to serve the beer with a flourish that suggested its consumption might be pleasurable. The true American saloon is still found primarily in cities that were settled early: that is to say, on the East coast, between Massachusetts and Virginia. There are hints of Dutch and English influence (echoes of Amsterdam's cosy "brown cafés". Or the restrained sociability of a pub, whether in York or London). Better still, there is a kiss of Blarney to the best of East Coast saloons.

The word helps define the image. "Tavern" sounds Continental European. "Pub" is British. "Bar" could be Irish, and serve draught stout, but in America often implies a leaning toward spirits. "Saloon" sounds American. The terms are used interchangeably, and each of the publicans mentioned below has his own preference. I incline toward saloon.

Are Irishmen born to be saloon-keepers? Not necessarily. For many years, when the people were too many for their land to support, one son was born to run the family farm, and the rest to emigrate: to be priests, policemen, publicans and construction workers. Writers, too: enough to fill our heads with romance. Sometimes the publicans are writers, too. The first novelist I ever met in the flesh was also a publican: Sean Tracey, of the long-gone "Queen's Elm" pub, in Chelsea (the one in London, not New York).

When I think, romantically, of the American saloon, the figure behind the bar is not the short, dark, Iberian whose vessel in the Armada was blown off course to Cork. Nor is he the red-haired, green-eyed, Celt, with freckles. Our silver-haired Irishman is over six feet tall, with a face like a side of ham, not much neck, shoulders like the yoke on a donkey cart, a chest like a barrel of porter and legs like tree-trunks. His natural habitat is behind a bar, preferably in a city that welcomed his forbears when there was work to be done.

With the conversation, a true saloon offers beer as its stock-in-trade; cocktails and trendy wines may be provided, but can seem frivolous.

The notion of a saloon as haven within walking distance of your workplace (or, even better, your home) survives to some extent in the Northeast, but is scarcely found elsewhere in the U.S. The idea that it is a place in which to talk is even less familiar outside the Northeast; many American "pubs" constantly play deafening recorded music. With the conversation, a true saloon offers beer as its stock-in-trade; cocktails and trendy wines may be provided, but can seem frivolous. Most important, food is minimal or a side-issue; this is a saloon, not a restaurant. Saloons with little or no food are virtually unknown elsewhere in the country.

"Puritan" Boston is mythologised in the U.S. as the city that prohibits pleasures. "Banned in Boston" is a proud plea, but the city has some good places in which to drink. It also gives rise to another compound: "Boston-Irish". If you want to understand this, go to a pub called Doyle's, in the Jamaica Plain neighbourhood. One of its rooms is a shrine to the Kennedys and Michael Collins.

New Amsterdam became New York. Having sounded Dutch and then English, it could have gone on to be New Dublin, perhaps around the time McSorley's saloon was established on East Seventh Street, in 1854. That historic saloon still operates, but the city would have had to change its name ever more frequently. By now, it would be having a re-think every six months, as each new batch of prospective cabdrivers arrives, from Haiti, Korea, Taiwan, or wherever. They could just settle for calling it New Everywhere.

It is everyone's city, and we all knew that before September 11, 2001. Everyone has his own idea of New York. People who have never been there know it. I have been countless times, have always loved the place. That I still romanticise it is testament to its power.

Just as Amsterdam is not The Netherlands, and London not England, so New York is famously not the United States. The Dutch and English, native to over-populated coastal strips, peninsulas and islands, squeezed into Manhattan and built houses so commensurately narrow that the territories across the Hudson still seem a foreign vastness. Narrow pubs: the shape best accommodates a long bar, with stools. Against the horizontal shape of the room and the bar-counter is set the vertical: the publican, usually a tall fellow called Sean. For a moment, he leans, arms splayed, hands resting on the bar counter, to share an observation with a customer. Walk from the teeming streets, through the door, and you have entered New York, become part of it. You are in there with the rest of them.

Manhattan is a densely populated island, where people live in apartments. They, too, are narrow. Property prices are high, so even the narrowest perch is expensive. People who live in small apartments don't spend too much of their leisure time there. The more sociable of them will meet friends after work, or neighbours, in a convenient saloon.

A woman friend from London was in New York on September 11 and in the eerie days that followed. As people gradually ventured back on to the streets, she happened to pass a bar. From the street, she could see the long line of high bar-stools, several occupied by construction workers in hard-hats. The line of vision was in the distant past enshrined in law, so that Protestant prohibitionists could check for impropriety. It has been argued that Prohibition was an attempt by the Protestant, Republican, ruling class to suppress the Catholic, Democrat, Irish.

Saloons are no longer viewed in that light, at least not in New York. My friend went in and found an empty seat. "Hi. What can I get you miss?" She ordered a Brooklyn Lager, proffered a $10 note, leaving the change on the bar counter, in the American way. The money would begin to pay for the next drink, or be left as a tip. She is a New York regular, but the city had not been itself for some days. Nor would it be for many months, but a beer at a long bar was a significant sip in the right direction.

"Puritan Boston" ... "Jewish" New York ... "Quaker Philadelphia" ... they are all great cities for the lover a true saloon. Philadelphia has one of my favourite Irish pubs, the picaresque McGlinchey's.

In these Northeastern cities, there is still a possibility of working in an office within walking distance of pub, and even a slight chance of having a neighbourhood local. The notion of a true local pub just about survives in blue-collar Baltimore and its bureaucratic big brother Washington, D.C.

The capital was meant to unite North and South, but pub-lovers can still find the Bible Belt restricting. Kentucky and Tennessee whiskey became famous when it flowed down the Mississippi to New Orleans, which remains today a city of potent cocktails. The later wave of beer-drinking immigrants headed for the Midwest, but the Czech and German beer-culture of St Louis has been diluted to near invisibility.

Chicago and Milwaukee have some impressive mock-rustic, German-style, beer-restaurants, but they are heavily outnumbered by cinder-block bunkers, optimistically described as "lounges". Some of these are anonymous to the point of announcing themselves only with a neon advertising their house beer (traditionally Heileman's "Old Style") in their sole, tiny, window.

In the empty spaces of the Prairies, the Rockies and the western deserts, there are still bars where the entry of a stranger halts the conversation and the pool game.

In sprawling suburbia, people do not live in apartments; or even houses; they have "homes" with a bar in the basement, and a barbecue in the garden. In such communities, pubs do not thrive. In small-town America, where everyone knows everyone, a bar can be a joyless confessional for the fugitive from life's slings and arrows ("Set 'em up, Joe"). In the empty spaces of the Prairies, the Rockies and the western deserts, there are still bars where the entry of a stranger halts the conversation and the pool game. When I have walked too boldly into such places, I am sure the juke-box stopped, too. Perhaps I imagined that.

The farther west one travels, the wider and more open the spaces and the longer the journey to the pub. As Americans went west, in the middle of the 20th century, they created a nation in which anyone stepping outside their home immediately sat in a car. If you have to travel, it is no longer a local pub. Nor, if you have to drive, can you linger over a few pints.

In the United States, by far the majority of "pubs" are a combination of bar and hamburger-ish restaurant. There are oases. Some of the younger cities, especially state capitals, have resisted sprawl. Austin, Texas, has hung on to its city-centre, and Denver revived its downtown, both with the help of a lively pub scene.

On the West Coast, San Francisco was long the pubbiest city, and Northern California the birthplace of the renaissance in both wine-making, and brewing. The United States now has more breweries than any other nation. In its bigger cities, the choice of beer-styles far outstrips anything to be found anywhere in Europe.

Portland, Oregon, has more brewpubs than any city in the world. A pub that sells a huge range of beers on draught is called a multi-tap, though the city of Seattle has revived the term "Ale House". Anyone who loves beer must visit those cities.

Europeans are still likely to begin their journey in New York, however far they wander. Where to drink in New York? Here are three favourites:

The Gingerman
11 East 36th Street (between 5th and Madison).
Telephone: (212) 532-3740

Named for the protagonist in the novel by J.P. Donleavy, an Irish-American from New York. There was a Gingerman pub in the city some years ago, but this current one was established in 1997. It is one of several New York pubs to feature a great range of distinctive beers on draught, in this instance, more than 60. While it does offer a more-than-respectable selection of American microbrews, its emphasis is international, from Murphy's Irish Stout, and British ales like Greene King Abbot, to Maredsous, from Belgium, or Erdinger Dunkel, from Germany.

Among such "multi-tap" beer pubs, it is the most central in location: Just off Fifth Avenue, a few blocks downtown of 42nd St. Nor is it purely for the devotee of speciality beers. While being of a new generation, it has very much the character of a traditional New York saloon.

Publican Bob Precious is from a New York family, and as a child lived above his aunt's saloon, which was called Paddy's. At 6ft. 3in, he has the height, if not quite the heft, to pursue the bar trade. Like the central character in The Gingerman, he attended Trinity College, Dublin. Precious studied Irish literature and "wanted to write like Joyce," but his published work was mainly as a movie reviewer. In Dublin, he drank in literary pubs like Davey Byrne's and O'Donohue's - and Mulligan's, renowned for the quality of its Guinness.

In his own pub, Precious stresses the importance of well-served beer, but regards food as "the 'F' word". He reluctantly admits to serving sandwiches and "pub food". The food may be basic, but the Gingerman is very popular indeed, crowded with what used to be called Yuppies, and noisy at busy times. "It's a big place. There are lots of people. They talk a lot. I love it," smiles Precious.

At calmer moments, notably weekend lunchtimes, it is an oasis of good beer in an area mainly devoted to shops and offices. The pub is very narrow, and hall-like, though space has still been found in corners for the odd armchair and occasional table. The main stretch is extremely long, with a 45-foot bar, and very high: the dark oak wainscoting reaches eight feet, and the uncluttered walls are uplit to a ceiling at a lofty 20ft. Precious hopes that his restoration gently highlighted the 1920s origins on the building.

Precious was a pioneer of multi-taps, in Texas, in 1985. While there, he became interested in Tequila. Directly opposite The Gingerman, he has a Tequila bar. Its name, the Volcano, is an allusion to the writing of Malcolm Lowry.

The Blind Tiger Ale House
518 Hudson Street (on the corner of West 10th St.).
Telephone: (212) 675-3848.

The name is slang for a speakeasy. The Blind Tiger is at a well-known intersection in Greenwich Village. Although the 1820s building has been an Italian butcher's shop and a pharmacy, it served first as an Irish pub and later as a gay bar before adopting its present stance as a specialist in American micro-brewed beers. It has a couple of dozen taps. The Blind Tiger is a strong supporter of the local New York beers, featuring some of the highly-distinctive specialities from the Brooklyn and Southampton breweries.

Publican David Brodrick is of Celtic origin, but if the Scottish branch, with distant links to the Gunn family (poet Neil Gunn wrote an early classic on whisky). Brodrick is another writer-publican. He studied journalism; drove a cab; and wrote three novels (as yet unpublished), supporting himself by working in a bar.

He, too, is 6-foot 3-inches, which seems to be a good height for a publican. He opened the Blind Tiger in 1996, when craft beers were enjoying a boom in the U.S. It is up two or three steps from the sidewalk, and behind leaded-glass windows.. Inside, a small, square, room is rendered L-shaped by the bar counter. Behind the bar is a collection of books, including several works on beer. The Blind Tiger inherited the bar counter and a tin ceiling. There are booths, and pine tables, which David made himself. "I wanted it to look as though it had always been here. I want it to last for ever," says Brodrick.

The Blind Tiger has no kitchen, but food can be ordered from nearby restaurants. On Saturday and Sunday lunchtimes, when Bloody Marys enjoy particular popularity, bagels with tomato, scallions and onions are offered free. Midweek is given an extra bite by Brodrick's custom of setting a table with a selection of farmhouse cheeses. In February, the pub has a festival of Vermont cheeses, with beers from that state; in early May, the beers and oysters of the Pacific Northwest are featured; in mid October the beers and sausages of the Midwest.

"I'm a bar-owner, not a restaurateur," explains Brodrick, but in this job you are a bit like someone who is always throwing a party. You don't want your guests to become bored. I don't want to be bored, either, and I never am. I don't want to dust my regulars as though they were furniture. I want to offer them something they may not have had before, keep them stimulated and fresh. I like the variety offered by regional beers, and the same goes for regional foods. We have all these good things in different parts of the country. If you work in this business, you have a responsibility to introduce people to these pleasures."

d.b.a. (Doing business as...)

41 1st Avenue (between 2nd and 3rd streets).
Telephone: (212) 475-5097.

The most earnest devotees of speciality beers favour this unobtrusive bar in the East Village. The building dates from the 1870s, and the very long, narrow, room has been a bar for most of the past 100 years. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was known for bebop, and was later bought by a baseball star. Current publican Ray Deter studied English literature - and drove a cab. He was turned on to beer by his room-mate, Dennis Zentek, who for a time was a bartender. The two are partners in dba.

The room has exposed brick on one side and tin on the other, painted in the colour of tobacco. There are a dozen tables, with marble tops, and some bench-like seats that were once pews in a synagogue. The back door leads to a walled garden and deck, with the classic New York view of fire-escape stairs on the outside of buildings.

Deter is the regulation 6-foot-3, with an appropriate touch of the Irish (along with, he insists, English, Dutch, Alsatian, German), Deter's wife Cathy is English, and his visits to Britain led him to take an great interest in cask-conditioned ales. The bar, established as d.b.a. in 1994, was the first in New York to offer cask ales. Look out for names like Fuller's, Brakspear's and Bateman's. Three British-style hand-pumps are used to dispense beers such as these without gas pressure and at a natural cellar temperature. There are a further 16 conventional draught lines, and 100-150 bottled beers are offered. The bar also offers single malt Scotches and an extensive range of Tequilas.

Although the East Village is sometimes considered a low-rent neighbourhood, that was always relative, and is scarcely true any longer. Deter and zentek struggled financially to establish the bar, but their aim from the start was to run "a neighbourhood corner joint that offered the best of everything."

"We wanted to take the high road," affirms Deter, and we have stuck by that decision. This is a place for people who enjoy drinking good things. I suppose we tried to create the kind of bar that we would like if we were customers. Sometimes, in the none-too-distant past, the word 'bar' indicated an anonymous place, in which someone went to disappear. Now, a bar is somewhere you are happy to be seen. We have full-length windows on to the street. The lighting is gentle, but it's not pitch-black; it's not a place for kids. We have music, but not too loud. We have fair prices, but the products we have are too expensive for kids. This is for adults.

"I'm a bar guy," is a mantra for Deter:

"I'm a bar guy. I don't run a pub; I run a bar."

And, before he can elaborate upon the distinction:

"I'm a bar guy. I don't run a restaurant. I don't have to worry about ordering anything other than beer, wine and spirits."

Guests can order from nearby restaurants.


More favourites:

Upper East Side
Kinsale Tavern

Irish bar with good beer selection
1672 Third Ave, between 93rd and 94 Streets
(tel 212-348-4370)

Heartland Brewery

1285 6th Ave, at 51st Street
Also at 43rd St and at the original premises at Union Square

West Village
White Horse

Literary history: Dylan Thomas drank there.
567 Hudson St (a few blocks from the Blind Tiger)
(tel 212-243-9260)

Mugs Ale House

125 Bedford Ave
(tel 718-384-8494)
Handy for a visit to the Brooklyn Brewery
(118 N 11th Street, 718-486-7422)

Waterfront Ale House
155 Atlantic Ave
(tel 718-522-3794
Also in Manhattan, at 540 Second Ave, at 30th Street

Published: SEPT 9, 2002
In: Beer Hunter Online

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