It's getting harder to cover the restaurants that belong in this column before they close. Lately, I've had to move some places up in the schedule after hearing that their death was imminent. Donovan's Pub in Woodside is one joint I thought I didn't have to hurry to. I expected it would be there forever. Alas, the owner, Joe Donovan, has put it up for sale. I've been there dozens of times. I went once more for this write-up. I hope it's not my last time.
Who Goes There? Donovan's Pub
Donovan's is, as far as I'm concerned, the heart of Woodside. In a neighborhood that once had hundreds of Irish pubs, and still holds on to a decent amount, it's the clear standout. Low-slung and sporting a faux-Tudor exterior, it sprawls over the corner of 58th Street and Roosevelt Avenue, just across from St. Sebastian's Church, presiding benevolently over the triangle known as Carl L. Sohncke Park. Of the two, I'd say the bar rates above the church in neighborhood influence. It has been there longer, after all.
A saloon has been on this corner at least since Prohibition was repealed, and probably before. It's been Donovan's since 1966, when Joe Donovan Sr. and his namesake son, Joe Jr., bought the business and turned it into a bustling success, serving nothing but beer, burgers, steaks and a bottomless tap of hospitality. Joe Jr. is still the owner, though he's rarely seen on the premises. The Donovan you will see at Donovan's is Jack, the general manager. Like Joe, Jack used to be a cop. He walked the mean streets of 1970s Harlem. You wouldn't peg him for a policeman. With his trim build, manicured silver hair and wire glasses, he looks more like an ex-stockbroker or news anchor.
Jack has no say over Joe's recent decision to put the iconic pub up for sale. Business hasn't been what it used to be, goes the lament. The Irish who once made up most of Woodside's population have moved away, and Joe's not getting any younger. Since word got out, however, trade has been up, with loyal regulars and newbies filing in for a well-poured Guinness and the joint's celebrated burger. Several years ago, Time Out New York named it the best burger in NYC. Since then, it's rarely been left off any list of top burgers in the city. It is, indeed, a good sandwich, and a bountiful one. Its virtue—and its drawback—is that the patty is not messed with. They just broil it. Don't touch it, don't flip it, don't season it. Just cook it. The result is satisfying, but I recommend a shake or salt and pepper before you launch in.
It's a good bet that the woman serving that burger will be blonde, have a thick Irish accent and will have worked at Donovan's for anywhere from ten to 30 years. A great number of New York eating institutions have career male waiters of the old school. Donovan's is one of the few I know of that have career female waitstaff.
The best room in the capacious tavern is the main dining hall, which is found at the end of the bar and down a few steps. It's the oldest of the several rooms, and has the character to show it. There's plenty of dark wood timbers, cozy booths, a high ceiling and a fireplace. Sitting by the fire on a chill winter evening is a lovely experience. Whether Donovan's will make it to this coming winter, and see that hearth lit again, is anyone's guess.