Behind the Bar My Take

Behind the Bar: Closing Time

Legendary bar pro Dale DeGroff, aka "King Cocktail," is renowned for having sparked the modern cocktail renaissance while helming the bar program at the Rainbow Room in the 1980s and ’90s. 

The death of a neighborhood saloon is a traumatic event that hits its habitués as hard as the death of a loved one.

Several years ago, New York’s legendary East Side watering hole P.J. Clarke’s changed hands and shut down for renovations. I’d polished a barstool at P.J.’s since 1968, and at the closing party, bold with drink, I demanded from one of the new partners a vow that they wouldn’t mess up the joint. They didn’t, and when the doors reopened, all the thousands of regulars came back and hardly a photo was out of place. It was a rare happy ending.

A few years later and a bit further uptown, when the celebrity community that anchored Elaine’s came to pay its last respects to the establishment’s late owner, Elaine Kaufman, it knew the comfortable refuge could not survive. Hoping to keep the gang together, a former patron started a Facebook group called “All the People that You Knew at Elaine’s.” When longtime bartender Kevin Duffy worked a shift at Neary’s, it buzzed with anticipation, and its members gathered like survivors of a shipwreck.

I still mourn the loss of Paddy McGlade’s, my first New York neighborhood bar, which stood at the southwest corner of 67th Street and Columbus Avenue for more than 100 years. Then, one by one, the landlord closed the whole block of businesses. My revered watering hole is now a Starbucks.

The crowd that McGlade’s served was eclectic, including musicians and dancers from Lincoln Center, students from Juilliard and technicians who worked on soap operas across the street at ABC. In the 25 years I frequented the joint, there were only two lead bartenders: Al and Tim.

Al was elderly when I met him in 1969, a perfect gentleman who treated everyone with respect as long as they returned the favor. He would not tolerate profanity, and even the hard cases observed this dictum. When he was working, he was the boss, even though Paddy sat in the corner day and night. When Al made a call, it was final; Paddy would never think of overruling him. It took three years of faithful attendance before Paddy bought me a drink. (Of course, Al extended that courtesy much earlier in my tenure.)

When McGlade’s closed, it was given a proper Irish wake, and all the stock was poured for free until it was depleted. But the heart of the neighborhood had stopped beating, and the surviving family members were scattered across the city. There was no internet then, no lifeline.

Al was gone, and I lost track of Tim, until one day I needed directions and walked into a friendly looking Irish spot. There he was behind the bar, looking as uncomfortable as a substitute teacher. We hugged and reminisced over a couple beers. For the next year or so, I popped in once in a while, but it wasn’t the same. Tim eventually found a gig closer to home way uptown in the Bronx.

It was over, leaving a tear in my life that could never be repaired, but I still tell the stories.