I know there are detractors of this blog out there who think my modus operandi is a mindless, knee-jerk exultation of all things old, regardless of worth. But I do make distinctions. Modell's, for instance, is a very old sporting goods chain in New York. But who cares? The stores look like crap, with no vestige of their history in sight, and entering one makes you want to hang yourself.
And then there's Pete's Tavern in Gramercy Park. I perhaps love old New York bars more than old New York anything-else. Just a glimpse of a huge, beautifully wrought, 19th-century mahogany bar with a towering back bar mirror is enough to bring tears to my eyes. But for all of my affection for Old Town Bar, P.J. Clarke's, White Horse Tavern, Bill's Gay 90s Saloon, the Brooklyn Inn, and many others, I've never been able to warm to Pete's.
As we all know, Pete's has been warring with McSorley's Old Ale House for the title of Oldest New York Bar for decades. No one has ever ascertained with any satisfying certainty who the victor is, and most people seem to be satisfied with not knowing. They're both super ancient, so let's just enjoy that fact and be happy they both exist. But what annoys me about Pete's is the way they whine about it. You never read about McSorley's owners going out of their way to prove they're the oldest. The barmen just goes about their business, pouring mugs of ale. But Pete's seems to have a chip on its shoulder about the whole thing. There's a big sign over the bar crowing its the "Oldest Original Bar in New York City." And across the bar is a framed article in which Pete's makes the case for its been the truly older establishment, with important passages highlighted in yellow. Pete's may be right in their argument; I don't know. (I would point out that McSorley's has always been called McSorley's, while Pete's, while always a bar, has been called by many names over the years.) But their presentation is petty.
There there are other things that stick in my craw. Where McSorley's covers its walls with historical articles, documents, photographs and knick knacks, accrued over the many decades, Pete's fills its space with tacky framed photos of the many celebrities that have visited the place. McSorley's (regrettably) has a tiny television in a corner of the back room, but Pete's has a large one right in the front room, utterly spoiling of the old world atmosphere. McSorley's served a simple, but Goddam good, menu of burgers, chili, cheese places and liverwurst. Pete's has a much more ambitious menu, which it deploys in two large back rooms, but I've never had a dish that was much more than passable.
And then there's the whole O. Henry thing. Pete's so sells itself as the place where the turn-of-the-century short story writer loved to tipple at that it brags about it on the bar's very facade. The second booth to the right as you walk in is where, Pete's will tell you, O. Henry wrote his most famous story, "The Gift of the Magi."
I don't know anyone outside the owners of Pete's who believes this. Sure, O. Henry probably drank there. He lived in the neighborhood. But William Sydney Porter (his real name) drank everywhere. He was a big drinker. And that he happened to pen his most famous words while sitting the whole time in a booth at Pete's is highly improbable. (That must have been quite a drinking session.) Some sources have disproved the claim. But it's preached like gospel at Pete's.
There's still plenty to like about Pete's, mainly the architecture: the old bar, the tin ceilings, the old tile floor, the gracefully curved glass of the beautiful front entrance. The owners just need to make better use of the material they've been given.