04 October 2013

The Story of Brew's, a Forgotten Murray Hill Watering Hole

A responder to my recent postings about the salvaging of the old bar from Harvey's Chelsea House asked me why Lost City have never posted anything about Brew's. To which my eloquent response was "Huh?" Never heard of the place. And so I endeavored to find something out.

Brew's was a pub that stood at 156 E. 34th Street, near Lexington, in Manhattan. It opened in 1937, and lasted until I'm not sure when. At least until the turn of the millennium. Anyway, it's gone now. 

The oddest thing about the place—at least to me—is it's name. It has nothing to do with beer. Improbably, Brew was actually the surname of the family that ran the joint. 

I found few accounts of the place, and no photos. The New York Times, in 1980, described it this way: "Brew's is a typical neighborhood pub with some differences, starting with the raffish bar decor, such as a yellow-light horseshoe over the cash register. Rear tables have checkered cloths and Tiffany-type lights, as does the large, step-down dining section. Brew's looks inviting, the bar ambience is hale and hearty, and the music on Thursday to Saturday is pure, pleasurable warmth, honky-tonk style."

Sounds delightful. By 1998, the Paper of Record's opinion hadn't changed much (and neither, it seems, had Brew's). It wrote: "Brew's is a dim, old-fashioned, classic American pub, with Tiffany lamps, bare wood floor and red-and-white checked tablecloths. At Brew's, people still drink beer at lunch. Nobody seems to be in a rush. The hamburger is worth taking the time to enjoy. It is big, and the meat is loosely knit, charred black on the outside and juicy within, and served on a seeded roll that stands up to the juicy meat. This is the kind of burger you want to keep eating. Fresh-cut french fries are crisp and delicious."

An invaluable book I have, called "The New York Book of Bars, Pubs & Taverns"—published in 1975, and filled with descriptions of watering holes that no longer exist—tells us more. It says Brew's used to be located between Park and Madison Avenues and was "an old Irish shot 'n' beer shack." The Brew family didn't assume ownership until the 1940s. By the 1970s, the bar has a "cosmopolitan air," and was frequented by Wall Streeters and advertising and fashion executives. (Sounds a bit like P.J. Clarke's today.) The account, too, mentioned the nightly music offerings with approval. However, the books says the acts leaned toward Dixieland Jazz, not honky-tonk.

Sadly, the book does not include a picture. Anyone out there have a photo of Brew's?


ironrailsironweights said...

After a Google search, the latest reference to Brew's that I can find is for a business meeting that was scheduled to be held at the bar on May 19, 2001. Brew's must have closed very shortly afterwards, as the NYU medical building now occupying the site opened in 2003.
Some online bar and restaurant directories still have entries and reviews for Brew's. I suppose that says a lot about the reliability of the Internet as an information source :)


Mykola ( Mick) Dementiuk said...

There was an old bar that looked like something like Brews out of old New York, with gas lights and old furniture. But was an elegant bar, with bartenders dressed in ties and vests. It stood on the SE corner of 23rd St & 3rd until the late 60s when it was shut down and replaced by, what else? a bank. In my teen years I was there maybe 2 or 3 times but it's name is gone from my memory. Around that strip, 3rd Ave in the 20s, there were many similar bars, Gloca Mora, Patty Murphy's etc. Gone for ever just in my memory.

Ken Mac said...


M.Lane said...

I hope I have said before how very much I enjoy this blog!! I look forward to every post.

Wish I could have been to Brews!


Anonymous said...

Hello- My name is Mike Burgevin. I led the Dixieland band there at Brew's during the early 1970's. Richie Brew was the owner, and a beautiful guy. Lovely family! His 2 sons Brendon and Tim took over the business. There was a Church on one side and the Murray Hill Movie Theatre on the other. I could tell you much about the place. If you Google 'Mike Burgevin Drums' it will take you to many of the early New York Magazine listings of jazz musicians who played there. I do have an exterior night photo of Brews with some of the legendary musicians standing outside. Give me an e mail address and I'll send it to you. My e mail is mburgevin@stny.rr.com / Best! Mike

Michael Burgevin said...

pithou CLI led the jazz band at Brews in the early 70's. I have pictures of the exterior with famous jazz guys standing outside. I can tell you much about Brews. Contact me at mburgevin@stny.rr.com

Eddie said...

Hi, I worked at a business around the block from Brews in the mid nineties. It was our Friday night go-to for a couple of years (me and my coworkers). Great bartender and beer selection. The two brothers were always there and weren't beyond joining regulars for a beer at the table. At times It seemed they didn't really get along though. A few eccentric regulars including and older gentleman, a gadfly with a cane and a hat, who we affectionately called him coca-cola man. He claimed to be an heir or something. Remember finding out one night that he passed. I seemed like a happy man. Other memories... drinking at the front window bench watching the ridiculous long line for Pulp Fiction which just started playing at the Theater next door. Also one of the brothers had some family connection/friendship with Kathleen Turner and he got her to perform with her rock/blues band (who knew at the time?) at Brews a few times. They revived the upstairs performance space for that. I moved to a different city and never returned to Brews. Found out a few years later it was gone. Some good memories there.

Steve Einhorn said...

awesome place,,,i frequented brews when i worked for Hasbro...always stayed next door at the Dumont...hey had a steak,,the hasbro sizzler...miss this place !! great spot !!!!!!!

Kieran Brew said...

In 1937, an Irish immigrant and decorated US combat veteran named Richard J. Brew opened Brew's at 50 E 34St between Park and Madison. In 1946 Rich, or Dick, moved to 156 E 34St between 3d and Lex. It had a reputation as being a "bucket of blood" in the early years, but caricatures drawn by a cartoonist named Becker portray a regular haunt filled with interesting characters. When the 3rd Av el came down in 1957, the Murray Hill neighborhood changed dramatically. High rise apartment towers replaced many tenement buildings, and professionals from the merchant trades, publishing, advertising and finance moved in. Brew's changed as well, evolving from a linoleum and vinyl barroom, to a tiffany shade, checked tablecloth restaurant serving reliable food and generous drinks.

By the time it expanded in 1968 into the building next door, it was a thriving restaurant and bar-- one of the most popular in Manhattan. Key to the success of the place was Richey Brew, the son of its original owner, and a lively, kind and comical character that gave the place its energy. Brew's persisted throughout the '70's and '80's and into the '90's, despite two fires, ups and downs in the economy, changing tastes and trends, and a neighborhood that had grown frumpy and unfashionable.

In the early 90's, Richey again passed the torch to the next generation, his two sons, Kieran and Tim, as well as Kieran's wife Jennifer. They dusted off the old bar and restaurant, and gave the rejuvenated Murray Hill a revived Brew's, complete with the old characters (Mr. Coca Cola was Hank Baron), the authenticity of a fast disappearing historic New York establishment, and a contemporary energy driven by hearty food, lively music and good cheer. After Richey Brew passed in 2001, the family sold the buildings and the business and Brew's became a (somewhat) forgotten piece of 20th Century New York history.

HomerJollyDesign said...

I lived in Midtown in the eighties and began going to Brew’s with colleagues from work. Then, from 1993- 2000, I lived directly across from Brew’s. From that time until I moved from Manhattan, Brew’s was my late evening living room. Kieran and Tim, two of Ritchie Brew’s three sons were the proprietors at the time. It was a late night meeting spot for many groups of friends. No matter what you were doing for the evening you would always end up back at Brew’s for a nightcap. It had a reputation of being that kind of a place throughout its history. The walls were filled with photos of the “friends” of Brew’s through the years. And they weren’t autographed photos of some celebrities who came in the place once or twice, they were people who came regularly. The most famous of them was Cathy Gaylord. Cathy, in her late eighties when I knew her, had been a Copacabana girl in her early years. She had seen all that Brew’s had seen. She had a gravely voice from years in lounges and bars and a sense of humor. She sat with a screwdriver at her side near the street end of the bar by the big window (all Brew’s patrons had an affinity for which end of the bar they preferred). We all took turns walking her around the block to her apartment to make sure she didn’t fall. I was at her place for her birthday once and I asked her how many times Frank Sinatra had been up there. She turned to me and with her quick wit and gravely voice said,”More times than you, Honey”

I flew back up to be an honorary bartender two nights before they closed. When I left Kieran gave me two things. The first was a sheet of paper from the back of the bar with the names, including mine, of people who were allowed house accounts through the years and one photo from the wall, Cathy Gaylord. I have them both framed on my walls today.

Kieran Brew said...

See what you started?


Unknown said...

Stayed at Dumont next door one nye and found Brews and bartender they called squeeks ... Fun place and being out of towners we were there for times square dropping of the ball...NOT! Below zero temps that year we opted for the private notrodame alumni party at Brews. The year was before everyone was walking around with cell phones so was in the 90's, maybe 1996-1998? Our photos were on the wall there because I went back one other time when I was in the city for work...my next trip back to NYC in 2004 Brews was gone :/

Dawn - Michigan

Susan said...

My mother worked at Brew's as a waitress in the 1960s. I loved that place. Spent many a time there in those days.

Victor Rock said...

I was in it on my first visit to New York as a green horn from Ireland in early '80s went back in late 90s with my wife a great experience, tried to find in 2004 sadly it was gone