News came last week that Audrey Saunders’ Pegu Club, that elegant atelier of modern cocktails, has closed its glass front door for good. After being shuttered for nearly two months like every other bar in New York City, its permanent closure didn’t come as a great surprise, but I still find my heart aching—over the loss of something special and beautiful but also in recognizing what Pegu meant and how it changed the way we drink and think. And, perhaps, how we treat each other.
“What I remember and what influenced me most is her really exacting recipe development and process, which was so intense. I still think about it and marvel that she was so patient and so smart. She would never let a recipe across her bar that was not absolutely perfect and better than everybody else’s,” says St. John Frizell, who worked there for a year and half starting in January 2007 and now owns Fort Defiance in Brooklyn. “I don’t think any other bar was more influential.”
The Right People
Saunders took the high standards of her Bemelmans background and brought that glamour and rigor below 14th Street. It’s well documented that it was the launch pad for a bevy of influential drinks, as well as some of the most highly respected names in drink-making: Frizell, Kenta Goto, Toby Maloney, Jim Meehan, Brian Miller, Sam Ross, Eric Simpkins, Chad Solomon, Phil Ward and Erin Williams, to name a few. Smart, talented people attracted other smart, talented people, so that on some nights the place felt a bit like a modern-day Algonquin Round Table.
Saunders was careful about how she selected her staff. Frizell, a drinks geek with a history buff side and a penchant for classic New Orleans cocktails, came from a publishing background and first encountered Saunders in the comments section of her husband Robert Hess’ former cocktail blog, Drink Boy, and later at Pegu as a patron. “It was the cocktail bar I fell in love with,” says Frizell. “I went to her and said, ‘I want to work here. What do I have to do?’ She said, ‘Get a job at your local making cocktails for a year, and I will talk to you after that.’”
He did as instructed and secured a gig bartending at The Good Fork in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood. When the year was up, he returned to Saunders. “I called Audrey and was like ‘OK, I’m ready.’ And she came out to The Good Fork,” says Frizell. Saunders had dinner there and observed Frizell the entire evening. He made her drinks, and they talked long into the night. “We talked about cocktails and life, and we ended up locking the place up together. And she was like, ‘OK, you can start next week,’” says Frizell. “And that was it.”
The first time I climbed the stairs of 77 West Houston Street, it wasn’t yet home to Pegu but still a scrappy music club where my then-boyfriend (now husband) would play with his ska band in the early ’90s. We were young and in the early days of our relationship, and I lived a few blocks away. We were on a beer-and-a-shot budget, and that’s what we drank there. Years later, in 2005, word came that the space was morphing into a fancy cocktail bar.
As any good self-respecting, dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker does when major change occurs, I grumbled that all our old haunts were being devoured by New York’s “Go Big or Go Home” mentality of the time. Massive, expensive over-the-top expense account spots like Buddakan and Del Posto were sumo-squatting on near-entire street blocks, and big-box stores were purging the New York landscape of individuality. And drinks were big too: “Martinis” of all sorts, not resembling any actual Martini at all, packed with chocolate, syrups and all kinds of day-glo color, spilling from oversize glasses and leaving the inevitable stain of a bad headache.
The first time I entered Pegu, I stopped in my tracks at the top of the stairs, gazing into the long room lit just so with comfortable well-upholstered areas to sit and talk in groups or tete-a-tete two-tops. The bartenders and waitstaff sported tailored vests and buttoned shirts or stylish cocktail dresses. The long bar had hooks underneath on which guests could discreetly hang a purse or jacket—unusual at the time. The menu featured smart little bar snacks (oh, those deviled eggs!) and cocktails in which spirits such as gin and rye were celebrated. If I happened to be there alone, waiting on a friend or just stopping by for a drink and a few pages of a book, I never felt uncomfortable but instead welcome with my peace respected. I had never experienced anything like it downtown.
It was a well-planned, incredibly well-executed vision brought to life through Saunders’ intensely high standards, a now-famed part of which was 86’ing vodka. Not because it was bad and not as an act of snobbery, but so drinkers could rediscover spirits we thought we didn’t like anymore.
“Part of the revolution at Pegu was setting standards of what we would serve. There were exceptions we didn’t make–-it was parallel to a chef saying there are no substitutions to my menu,” says Meehan, who’s best known for helping found PDT. “At Pegu, we literally had to kill vodka to let gin live.”
A Drive for Perfection
There was more to her quality-driven revolution. “Audrey opened with a Kold-Draft ice machine; she opened with barware ordered from APS, with hand-turned custom muddlers from Chris Gallagher; she opened with her staff in bespoke uniforms,” says Meehan. “She flipped the script.”
“Audrey relentlessly tried every spirit and combination of ingredients with different proportions, tweaking to the eighth of an ounce until perfect,” says Frizell. “That was not the way bars were doing things at the time. Bars weren’t even using jiggers! Audrey taught us to put vermouth in the fridge and to measure, and she pretty much invented the dry shake.”
It wasn’t just about the liquid. As Saunders didn’t tolerate poor ingredients, she didn’t accept poor behavior, either. “Everyone focuses on the deliciousness and quality of the drinks, but part of that revolution was the change in view of bartenders as liquid butlers to being accepted as a professional that you needed to speak to with some degree of respect,” says Meehan, who came to Pegu from Gramercy Tavern. Even there, he says, some patrons would impatiently snap their fingers or whistle at him for attention. “At Pegu, it was a breath of fresh air for me as a human and a professional.”
A Lost Requiem
“Eventually, there will be a vaccine and herd immunity. Life will go on. But I think one of the hardest parts is we’ve lost so many people, and so quickly, that we didn’t have time to mourn them and say our last goodbye. I think that loss leaks into everything,” says Meehan. “There was no final night at Pegu, where people come together and say thank you and celebrate and lament. There’s no funeral. That’s the hardest part: the dissonance. It’s an inhuman cruelty to lose these places and not be able to say goodbye and bury them in a way that befits their place and station in life. And so many will be gone when life resumes.”
Yet Pegu’s legacy—standards, quality, respect, celebration—will live on. It’s how the bar will be remembered by all, and it’s what will last long past the sound of the final click of a key in a lock.