Monday, July 19, 2010

P.J. Clarke's

Today I'd like to take a moment to offer a toast to P.J. Clarkes, a Manhattan landmark and one of my favorite saloons in the world. Back in the days when I lived and worked in the Big City, P.J. Clarke's was a favorite hangout. It was crowded and smokey (this was back before there were laws prohibiting smoking in bars) and you could barely hear yourself speak over the constant din of the other patrons; but there was no better place for sharing an after-work cocktail with friends.

Notice I called it a saloon, not a bar or a restaurant; although it contained both it was much more than either. A saloon has character and history; it's the perfect place to drown your sorrows or toast your triumphs. You feel equally at home alone at the bar or with a group of friends. Of course, there's always a sympathetic bartender willing to offer advice or just lend an ear. To illustrate by way of contrast, places like TGI Friday's and Bennigan's and Applebees all contain bars and restaurants but no self-respecting imbiber would think of referring to any of them as a saloon.

Located at the corner of 55th Street and Third Ave, it takes it's name from Patrick James Clarke, an Irish immigrant who started out as an employee and bought the tavern in the early 1900's. I haven't been able to determine what it was called before that, but records indicate some type of bar dating back to at least 1884.

P.J. Clarke's Fun Facts and History (aka Why I Love P.J. Clarke's):

One For My Baby (And One More For The Road) - In 1941, Johnny Mercer, the award-winning songwriter, singer and actor, penned this ultimate saloon torch song on a napkin at the bar. He later apologized to his bartender, Timothy Joyce, for naming the song's bartender Joe, saying "I couldn't get your name to rhyme". Here's Frank Sinatra performing the version of the song against which all others are measured.

The urinals - this may seem bizarre, but the urinals at P.J. Clarke's were memorable to say the least; massive porcelain artifacts of another age. I've been in studio apartments in Manhattan with smaller square footage. Lest you think I am alone in my admiration for these fixtures, Frank Sinatra is on record as saying "Those urinals! You could stand Abe Beame in one of them and still have room to spare." For those of you not from NYC, Abe Beame was the diminutive (5' 2") Mayor of the City in the mid-70's. To put him in Pop Culture terms - he looked a lot like Mr. Woodman (actor John Sylvester White) the vice-principal on Welcome Back, Kotter.

The Lost Weekend - In director Billy Wilder's 1945 classic film about an alcoholic writer, the main character, played by Ray Milland, spends part of his weekend-long bender at Nat's Bar on Third Avenue (actually P.J. Clarke's). Charles R. Jackson, the author of the semi-autobiographical novel upon which the film was based was a P.J. Clarke's regular.

Nat "King" Cole - In the late 1950's (exact date is lost to the mists of time) the legendary singer said that P.J. Clarke's bacon cheeseburger was the "Cadillac of burgers". To this day, P.J. Clarke's menu lists their bacon cheeseburger as "The Cadillac".

Buddy Holly - One night in the summer of 1958, Buddy Holly proposed to his future wife over dinner at P.J. Clarke's . No, her name wasn't Peggy Sue, it was Maria Elena (which is also the title of a song, but not one by Buddy).

Ernie and Ethel - In 1964, Ernest Borgnine and Ethel Merman announced their engagement at P.J. Clarke's. They were married on June 26, 1964 and divorced 32 days later.

More Frank - Whenever he was bar hopping in Manhattan, Frank Sinatra would always end the evening at P.J. Clarke's where he was known as the "owner" of Table 20.

Richard Harris' Usual - When visiting NY, the Irish actor's first stop was PJ Clarke's. "I adore the hamburgers," he told an interviewer. During his drinking days, Harris would request "the usual" and Vinny, his regular bartender, would line up six double vodkas.

There you have it, lost weekends, bacon cheeseburgers, torch songs and giant urinals. This venerable establishment was bought by a consortium of investors in 2002 and since then several other locations have opened (hoping to cash in on the name no doubt; one more example of the "branding" of American Icons). It has been years since I last stepped over it's threshold, but I doubt I'll visit it the next time I'm in Manhattan. I suspect it will bear little resemblance to the P.J. Clarke's of my youth; some things are best left to memory. make it one for my baby, and one more for the road, that long, long, road.

1 comment:

  1. "One for my baby" is best "getting-drunk-because-your-woman-left-you" song ever.