I've had many a drink in the small, dark-wood bar of Bill's Gay Nineties restaurant (called the Silver Dollar Bar0, the unsung, old-school former speakeasy on E. 54th Street. But I've never eaten there. Few patrons know there's a second floor. I do, but every time I've peeked up there it's been desolate, the many tables and chairs unoccupied. I figured the food must not be such great shakes.
But, not trying is not knowing, so last night I sat down for dinner with a good friend among the countless framed playbills and posters of long-forgotten plays and attractions from the first years of Broadway. (The days before plays were meant to last.) A photograph of Maude Adams, the original Peter Pan, hung above my friend's head. Further up was a poster for a play called "Fine Feathers," ballyhooed as "the finest written play in our day." Never heard of it. Sarah Bernhardt, Ada Rehan, Edward Harrigan, Al Jolson, Mrs. Fiske and Tony Pastor looked down on us from other walls, all seeming to whisper "Sic transit gloria."
Our waiter was one of the oddest birds I've ever encountered. Slight, blonde, of indeterminate age and with an indeterminate accent, like those Hollywood contract players from the '30s who were perpetually playing "foreign." He could have been seated at the bar at Rick's in "Casablanca," waiting for a letter of transport.
The menu was short, with the usual assortment of meat and seafood favorites typical of chop houses of yesteryear. I had the Maryland Crab Cakes, my friend the Sesame Crusted Tuna. And both were quite fine! I had expected some circular hockey pucks made of crab, but my cakes were fresh and light and presented with care. The green beans were crisp and the side of remoulade sauce was a nice touch.
We had the hall all to ourselves from 6:30 to 7:30 PM. Bill's customers who choose to eat seem to prefer the cozy downstairs bar. But if you like privacy, while keeping company with the faded stars of the Rialto, head upstairs. There's also an upright piano. No idea if, or when, it's played.
After returning home, I turned up a little history about Bill's and discovered that in the 1930s, there was a notorious altercation between a Bill's doorman and famous journalist-screenwriter Adela Rogers St. John and her party, in which blood was spilled. Charges were eventually dropped on both sides, with the presided judge closing the trial with this self-penned verse:
There comes a night when we all get tight
And we drink queer drinks and we think queer thinks
And the world seems full of skating rinks.
Nobody cares if you fall downstairs
And nobody cares if the landlord swears.