24 April 2006

What About Bill?

What doesn't Bill's Gay Nineties have that "21," Pete's Tavern, Chumley's and P.J. Clarke's and other classic Manhattan steak and ale places have?

While places like McSorley's and the Old Town Tavern get their dark wood and nostalgic ambiance sung in glorious write-ups nearly every year, Bill's sojourns on in relatively anonymity in its East 54th Street space, where it has been located since the 1920s, when it was a speakeasy. It's not even reviewed in Zagat's or mentioned in the guide's list of "Historic Places."

I suspect my attitude toward the place (which changed only last week) mirrored that of other citizens. Though I've passed by the address time and again over the past decade and eyed it with curiosity—the basement entrance, the iron jockeys—I never went it. Not having seen it extolled in the papers or guide books, I suspected it was a fake of some sort, perhaps a 20-year-old dive pretending to be a 100-year-old institution. That it never seemed to be crowded only strengthened my suspicions.

Last week, I walked through the door to find out the truth. A genuine, old wooden phone booth (working!) was at the left as you walked in. A long wooden coat wrack lined the left hand side of the front hall. Bill's name is spelled out in old coins on the floor. Actual swinging doors, adorned with stained glass, lead to the bar room which, like all these old places, is remarkably compact and snug. The atmosphere was quiet and sedate—a few regulars, the bartender unperturbed. The walls immediately provoked my interest, covered as they were with engravings of old prize fighters: Jack Dempsey, Jim Jeffries, Gene Tunney. I was halfway through A.J. Liebling's classic book of boxing essays, "The Sweet Science," and my mind was filled with ring-sing accounts. The bartender looked at the image on the cover—Sugar Ray Robinson slugging it out with Jack LaMotta—and said, "Isn't that that photo on the wall?" I turned around. Sure enough: a photo from the same fight was framed and hanging behind me.

The bartender told me the place is owned by Barbara Bart, the daughter of the previous owner and only the third person to own the place since its founding. He also told me they didn't own the building (ouch!). A piano player comes in every night at 8 PM. The second floor is the main dining area: fireplace, checkered tablecloths and countless framed bills of theatre attractions whose stars haven't been famous since 1911. Theatre and boxing. Odd combination. But this is how people entertained themselves in New York until the moving pictures came along.

So, why don't more people know about Bill's Gay Nineties? Maybe the odd name; people don't know what the "gay nineties" were anymore, or why they were gay, or how they were gay in a way that is different from the way things are gay today. Maybe the location, 54th Street between Madison and Park. Nothing's there, except an outlet of Sym's department store—although, oddly, its very near P.J. Clarke's, which attracts hoards. Maybe they just like it that way. Maybe they told Tim Zagat to get lost when he came around trolling for free drinks. Who knows? But I know about it now. I'll be back.

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