By Johnny Burke
What is the most exciting aspect of living in New York City? For me, it’s turning lazy weekends into an explorer’s paradise. I start going to all those places that I’ve only read about in tour guides and seen in the human- interest stories on the local news! The five boroughs and their scores of neighborhoods become a giant PBS history series! I’m thrilled when I find those restaurants and businesses, shops and emporiums that have weathered the decades and are still right there where they started, sometimes from the 1800s!
You can’t miss with Pete’s Tavern just off gorgeous and very exclusive Gramercy Park. The original building that houses Pete’s was built in 1829 (when Andrew Jackson was President!), and was originally the Portman Hotel, a stage coach stop for travelers coming through the city back when East 18th was still surrounded by freestanding houses and farmland. Liquor may have been sold there on the ground floor as early as 1851 or 1852 when it was a “grocery & grog” store, and the shop was later converted to a tavern in 1864! Yes! That’s right, in 1864, when Lincoln was President and the Civil War was still raging.
It was bought in 1899 by brothers Tom and John Healy and became Healy’s Cafe. During Prohibition, which came around in 1920, when selling alcohol became illegal, the bar continued to operate as a “speakeasy” disguised as a flower shop and then was sold to Peter D. Bell in 1922 when it finally became Pete’s Tavern. The entrance to the “florist shop” at that time was on the 18th Street side, and the entire front room and bar on the Irving Place entry were blocked off and hidden behind what the owners presented as a giant refrigerator for the flowers! I had the pleasure of getting a grand tour from the general manager and charming Gary Egan (a fellow Irishman!) who showed me the original hinges to the refrigerator doors in the door frame. With the Tammany Hall politicians as regular customers and only a few blocks, no inspectors ever bothered to ask questions. But beyond that faux-refrigerator was the entire mahogany bar, the tile floors and tin ceiling, the chandeliers and beveled glass mirrors all dating back to the Civil War, original and untouched—and concealed for “favored customers only”!
A CELEB HAUNT
The tavern had always been the hangout for writers, actors, and artists. Edwin Booth, famous theater actor/producer/director, and brother of the infamous John Wilkes Booth lived just around the corner in a breathtaking double-lot townhouse, which he purchased and turned into The Players Club on the South side of Gramercy Park itself. Considered a 19th-century “matinee-idol,” he had built his fortune in NYC theatrical productions and then touring them around the country and the world. (Coincidentally, Edwin Booth saved Lincoln’s son Robert from being killed in a train accident on a platform just a year before John assassinated Abraham Lincoln.) Edwin Booth’s home was the top floor of The Players Club which he had created for actors and well-to-do gentlemen from all walks of life and which still stands today at 16 Gramercy Park South. Its first members included Mark Twain; architect Stanford White, who designed Players Club; the Barrymore brothers; Eugene O’Neill, George M. Cohan, and many others. By a very small stretch of the imagination, one can assume that these fabulous persons of the 19th century would have strolled over to the tavern for a change of pace, just as all the celebrities do today whose photos hang on the walls by those same beveled glass mirrors around the now openly visited mahogany bar! Today’s diners often spot celebrities like Johnny Depp, Daniel Craig, Carol Burnett, Liza Minnelli, Natalie Portman, and various politicians of all stripes.
When you walk into the main bar (all original, remember?), you’ll pass the hotly fought-over O. Henry booth on your right. The great American author of The Gift of The Magi, The Last Leaf, and over four hundred other pieces, O. Henry, lived just down the street at 55 Irving Place. He is said to have written some of The Gift of The Magi in that very booth, and he referenced the bar when it was Healy’s as “Kenealy’s” in his delightful story The Lost Blend. And if you’re a fan of the wonderful series of Madeline children’s stories by Ludwig Bemelmans, you’ll be glad to know that he apparently wrote and illustrated some of the first drafts of the original on the back of the tavern’s menu! Speaking of menus, the food here is a fusion of Italian and American—all delicious and affordable!
For the non-readers in the crowd, you’ll be happy to know that Pete’s Tavern has appeared in numerous films and television programs, including Seinfeld, Ragtime, Endless Love, Law & Order, Nurse Jackie, Spin City, and Sex and the City. It has also been used as a location for scores of television commercials and print advertisements.
Run—don’t walk to what has been described as New York City’s “oldest continuously operated tavern” Pete’s is the real deal!
And tell ‘em, Johnny sent you!
For more information, visit petestavern.com