A Quick One at Bleeck's

New York City is a jumble of eras. As another glass tower rises, our 1882-vintage underground steam system pokes its head up to laugh. A building comes down and a ghost sign touting hair tonic or whalebone corsets is exposed on the adjoining bricks. At a brand new cocktail lounge we might admire a tile floor dating from three shops ago, or wonder about the path the backbar has taken over the course of a century to arrive here, though it is frustratingly mute to our attempts at an interview. The restaurant we ate at last night could very well be eulogized in Jeremiah’s column this afternoon. Today’s newspaper is already old by the time it hits the newsstand.

When we’re reading —even if it’s fiction— and a notable address is mentioned, we can’t help running down the street to see what’s there now. It’s exciting when some scrap from the past remains, but fat chance these days; odds are everything’s long gone. Sometimes not even street numbers persist if a block has been busted up by an office tower, often sporting a showy new realtor-minted address. In a recent binge-read we gobbled up Jack Finney’s time travel fantasy novels, “Time and Again” and “The Woodrow Wilson Dime.” Even if you never daydream that, by some clever mind game or simply squinting real hard, you could maybe (maybe, maybe) trick a parallel world into view, Finney style, the many strata of city history are there in plain sight, waiting for you. Our city is a boîte boneyard, a nite-spot necropolis, a potter’s field of cabarets, oyster palaces and hotel lounges.

Some names of past hotspots still live on in popular lore — your Stork Club, your El Morocco. But there were others, maybe smaller in size and fame, that were at one time just as legendary with a certain clientele. Today they are nearly unknown. The heyday of these storied joints, long departed, can never be recreated. But if we can’t step inside, let’s loiter outside and toast, in salute to good times past. We may be a little late, but we have time for a quick one.

Our first stop, Bleeck’s.



by Jon Hammer ©2014
Interior décor at Bleeck’s featured a full suit of armor swiped from the prop department of the old Metropolitan Opera, and a marlin said to have been caught by J.P. Morgan.

“I’m going downstairs.”

In the offices of the New York Herald Tribune these words always signified a field trip to Bleeck’s, the bar at 213 West 40th Street, just “a stein’s throw” away from the newspaper’s back door. The Herald Tribune was at 230 West 41st Street from 1924-66, but the employees’ entrance was one block south at 219-220 West 40th; today, fittingly, this is the entrance to the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Bleeck’s was destroyed by fire in 1981 and 213 is now a link in the Hale & Hearty Soup chain.

In 1925 Jack Bleeck (pronounced ‘blake’ in the Dutch manner) finagled a charter for a social club he named The Artist & Writers Club. No one was ever quite sure the reason for that singular artist. The private club angle was a dodge to skirt Prohibition. Soon there were 6,000 members on the rolls, a sizable proportion of these were ink-stained wretches from the Trib. At this point everyone just called it Bleeck’s. Ace Broadway press agent and Bleeck’s regular Richard Maney told Life Magazine readers in 1945,
Even those skilled in distinguishing shadings in the spectrum find it difficult to determine where the Herald Tribune leaves off and Bleeck’s starts in, and vice versa.
It is said that when the walls of the saloon would begin to shake as the presses upstairs started their run, the bar would clear out as newsmen ran to check their copy. The New Yorker offices were also nearby, and soon Joe Mitchell and A.J. Leibling were leading James Thurber and their co-workers along a well beaten path to Bleeck’s door. Eventually reporters, columnists, writers and press agents from all over town made the bar a favorite literary hangout. Dick Schapp interviewed Norman Mailer there to coincide with the publication of “An American Dream.” The Newspaper Guild union was practically formed there in 1933 when Heywood Broun encouraged Bleeck’s habitués to join.

Bleeck’s was a busy joint. In the early days it attracted opera singers from the old Met, just a block away, and sundry thespians and stagehands from the National Theatre (later the Billy Rose, now the Nederlander) at 208 West 41st Street. Tallulah Bankhead is remembered wearing mink with slacks while she shot dice with French sailors during her 1939 run at the National in Lillian Hellman’s “Little Foxes.” Bogart brought Bacall to learn the famous “match game.”

As described in Life, the match game was born in Bleeck’s and the fierce competition became the stuff of legend. A game for any number of players, each hides in his fist from zero to three matches. Contestants guess the total number of matches held, and a correct guess means you are eliminated. This continues until there are two players left. From this point, the best two out of three rounds wins, and the loser pays out a predetermined stake to each of the winners.

The local color at Bleeck’s was not restricted to its famous patrons. The staff had its characters, too, according to Lucius Beebe, in “Snoot If You Must,”

It was at Bleeck’s that Harry McCormack, the demented barkeep, imagined he maintained a complete poultry farm and apiary behind the bar. The premises, in his fancy, were filled with white leghorns and bees in clover, and he was forever scattering imaginary cracked corn to his flock among the duckboards back of the ice bins. He was an excellent barkeep.

Some Regulars: Herbert Asbury, Lucius Beebe, Heywood Broun, Jimmy Breslin, Walt Kelly, John Lardner, A.J. Liebling, Arthur Miller, Joe Mitchell, John O’Hara, James Thurber, and Herald Tribune owner Jock Whitney.

Shall we have a look at the place today?

The Artist [sic] and Writers Club (later Restaurant), or more familiarly, Bleeck’s. Today you can get turkey gumbo to go instead of knockwurst, beer and camaraderie.

Two doors west, once the backside of the New York Herald Tribune and currently the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

Cocktails on West 40th Street with the ghosts of Bleeck’s, while commuting hordes advance towards Port Authority and Times Square. Bleeck’s Martinis were preconcocted at 5-to-1 and kept on ice behind the bar, chilled and ready to be served undiluted. Ours are similarly readymade and thermos-cooled for sidewalk quaffability.

The match game begins. We keep an eye out for John Law as dollar bets are placed.

While talking occupational bars, guest illicit imbiber Paul Lukas reminds us of his piece in Beer Frame mentioning a past New York Times local, Gough’s Chop House, 212 West 43rd Street (1947-1993, R.I.P.) Surreptitious sipper Heather McCabe also relays memories of another dearly departed saloon, a home-away-from-home once favored by the staff of Sports Illustrated.

“Wanamaker Pfeufferneuse Knickerbocker Benchley!” (Our own Grade “A” Fancy version of “Down the hatch!”) And a toast to the memory of Jack Bleeck, and to the grand tradition of New York City trade bars.

In the next installment of A Quick One, A Little Late, we’ll drop by a chophouse that was a second home to all the Broadway Babies in the Roaring Twenties.


¡Viva El Quijote!

When the Chelsea Hotel was sold, we all saw that El Quijote, the adorable Spanish restaurant just off the lobby, may be living on borrowed time. Not that it necessarily has to disappear, but the climate being what it is, things are likely to change, and sweet and old-fashioned are not at a premium in Manhattan. We will have to wait and see. In the meanwhile, Grade "A" Fancy invites you to enjoy with us a visit to El Quijote. Meet you at the bar?


Season's Drinkings

This Saturday, December 21, it's time for our favorite holiday tradition, the Bartender of the Airwaves! As the "hep" elves know, every year WFMU radio personality Rex hosts a Christmas-themed swingin' office party on his Fool's Paradise program. The Grade "A" Fancy crew will be there once again, and Karen will create a brand new cocktail in honor of the occasion. Live, on-air mixamotology means this will be a broadcasting milestone, one you will be proud to share with your grandchildren one day when they ask you, "Mee-maw and Grampop, what's a radio?"

Rex will deliver his special brand of festive novelty tunes guaranteed to curdle your figgy pudding. Everyone's holiday traditions are represented — be they bop, slop or schlock — Fool's Paradise will never stoop to the corrosive debate currently poisoning our children about whether Santa is a "hillbilly" or a "soul brother".

Tune in Saturday from 1 to 3pm on the Fun 91! In the New York City area it's WFMU 91.1 fm Jersey City, and 90.1 in the Hudson Valley. Children of any land can listen in real time via the miracle of the internet, or sample the archived show any time, any season.

Attention Do-It-Yourself-ers! Play along at ho-ho-home!

Want to mix up this year's new holiday cocktail during the show? Here is everything you will need:
  • Bourbon, your favorite brand
  • Cherry Heering Liqueur
  • Linie Aquavit
  • Benedictine
  • Bitter Truth Old Fashioned Aromatic Bitters
  • Toasted sliced almonds
  • ice!

That's your shopping list! Good luck and good mixing.


A Manhattan Bar for All Reasons

Have you ever thought to yourself:

"What the World needs most in these troubled times — more than a better mousetrap, more than a good ten-cent cigar, even — is a guide to some of the most distinctive bars in New York City. I mean the kind of real inside dope that only Grade "A" Fancy magazine can provide. Naturally, if this vital scuttlebutt could be conveyed to a grateful public in the form of a handy map, one with the eye-pleasing design sense Herb Lester Associates is famous for, well, that would just be so much gravy!"

Sure, we've all ruminated along these all-too-familiar lines through countless sleepless nights. But it has always seemed too idealistic, too quixotic, a chimera more than a real world possibility.

Until today.

As if in answer to your prayers, A Manhattan Bar for All Reasons is now available on the web and at select retailers. With this guide Grade "A" Fancy adds a third New York City title (along with Truly Greenwich Village, and Writing Manhattan) to our collaboration with the aces at Herb Lester Associates. The map steers the reader to a wide variety of bars, taverns, cocktail lounges and gin mills in the Big Town, each with its own unique charm. These locations were chosen not merely because they’re great places to quaff a drink but because there is something out of the ordinary about each: that could mean a location, an object or perhaps an activity, and joints suitable for an eye-opener, a quick one, or a digestive tonic.

As Herb himself says, “A guide for the connoisseur as well as the thirsty.” (Except he would place the period outside the close quote because they’re freaky like that in London Town.)

The design of this map is by Jim Datz. You'll dig it.

Herb Lester product is available on the web and at smart stores around the world. In New York City that includes Bookmarc, Flight 001, Eventi –  a Kimpton Hotel, McNally Jackson Books, The New York Public Library Shop, and the inimitable Strand Book Store.


An Appetizing Repast

Hot dog! We’re pleased as punch that a brand new book, Repast by Michael Lesy and Lisa Stoffer, has found its way to the Grade “A” Fancy mailroom. Shall we take a quick peek inside?

As indicated by the book's subtitle, Dining Out at the Dawn of the New American Century, 1900-1910, the focus is on the first decade of the Twentieth century, a time of immense social and political upheaval, examined via all aspects of the food biz; from canning and meat packing, and the beginnings of sanitary standards for those industries, to the many evolving options, high or low, exotic and workaday, for eating outside of the home. 
The inspiration for Repast was the Buttolph Menu Collection in the Rare Books Division at the New York Public Library.  The collection, assembled from 1851-1930 by the delightfully named Miss Frank E. Buttolph, provides a good portion of the images in this handsome, well-designed volume.  Some menus are ornate, some utilitarian, all are a fascinating glimpse of a past that can be simultaneously familiar and alien.

Reading the menus can make us pine for the days of abundant shellfish (Little Neck clams thirteen ways at Dennet’s on Park Row, for instance), and pie, pie everywhere. The text exposes real world workers’ conditions and the strikes that followed, the “embalmed beef” scandal of the Spanish-American War and attention to purity of food after the reports and subsequent government intervention. You will discover the fashion for sanitary-appearing restaurants, such as the Child’s chain, with its gleaming tile, bright lighting and nurse-type waitresses’ uniforms,  the result of a proto-Bloombergian anxiety over cleanliness. There are chapters on new methods of serving lunch quickly to office workers, and how the emergence of women as customers and proprietresses brought new styles of eating places. All enormously curious, mouth-watering helpings of American history. Perhaps it’s true when they say that the way to a historian’s mind is through his stomach.

Repast~Dining Out at the Dawn of the New American Century, 1900-1910 was written by the team of Michael Lesy and Lisa Stoffer, university eggheads from Massachusetts, released 10-28-13 by W.W. Norton & Co. (not our Norton Records/Kicks friends, and not the Malbec wine producers in Argentina either, just so you know.) The menus shown here were cribbed from the NYPL's Buttolph archive online, and all can be found among the many delicious plates featured in the book.