15 July 2008

Lost City: Troy, NY, Edition: South End Cafe

One of the most intimidating old-school bars I've ever encountered rests on a desolate, curving stretch of Burden Avenue in South Troy, New York. Maybe it's the spare tan facade. Maybe it's the boarded-up, depressed feel of the surrounding neighborhood. Maybe it's the "Ladies Entrance" neon sign, almost as big as the main sign, that still defiantly hangs outside the building, despite the fact that ladies entrances in bars gasped their last gasp in the 1970s. Maybe it's the fact that rough-looking men were already inside at 11 AM, drinking in near darkness. Maybe it's all these things.

The place, known locally as Marty Burke's, after its founder, opened in 1934. It serviced the steel mill workers who once populated the area. (It's right near Mill Street.) A sign in the window promised "Steamers are Back!" Otherwise, the food is what you expect.

And the "Ladies Entrance" sign? Back in the 1970s, there were calls for it to be taken down, that it was sexist. Ironic, since the original owner hung it up because he wanted to serve women—a thing that a lot of bars at the time did not do. Anyway, the Troy City Council saved the sign by declaring it a historical landmark. Good councilmembers and true.


Nancy G said...

I know this is a very old post, but I'm curious. I grew up right across the river (and over the tracks and part way up the hill) from this place. It was always known to the locals on my side of the river, as the South End Tavern.

So, I'm wondering where you get the title "South End Cafe" from??? Have they changed it since I lived there in the 60's, 70's and 80's?

You're right tho', it was a bit of a dive in my time...frequently bad to mediocre food & service (still recall the time in the late 70's, when I ordered the fried chicken dinner and the chicken wasn't even cooked, all rubbery & bloody inside--and the waiter was really rude about sending the food back).

But, being virtually the only restaurant-bar in that particular part of the South End--and being a local landmark as well, they more or less had a lock on business there.

Have no clue why or how this place manages to remain such a popular spot...the blue collar crowd obviously went went for the booze, cos' if you're drunk enough, you'll eat anything.

unknown said...

First, the South End Tavern remains ... a tavern. It is not a cafe.

Second, Marty Burke was not the founder of the South End Tavern. Marty had been the owner for many years and was always behind the bar serving smiles and drinks to any and all. I lived down the road on Fourth Street many years ago and visited Marty Burke's often. My father and his brothers owned a company down the road and had lunch there every Monday (mostly because the Red Front was closed on Monday's).

The idea that Marty Burke's was a dive is silly, condensending and, frankly, insulting. Many a state Senator (and at least two Governers) made the trip from Albany when possible just to have the roast beef with fries. You don't stay in the restaurant business for going on ninty years by serving "bad to mediocre food". They never promised healthy food (it isn't healthy, to be sure). But the food was always good. I'm sorry you had a bad experience back in the 70's but I defy you to tell me a restaurant that is 100% perfect every time.

You're idea that the waiter was rude ... sorry, but they were some of the nicest guys you'd ever want to meet. Their manner was and is part of the places charm. The Bergoff in Chicago is one of the hot spots of the city and the staff there are very much the same. They just dress a bit better and the decor is more ... well, let's just say you pay a lot for the decor and you get what you pay for. Burkie's (as we locals usually referred to it) was the same as it was in 1940. I hope it never changes.

As for the womens entrance, that was standard fare for restaurants/bars in the period. They were extremely common in mill towns and a welcome sight to ladies going out for the evening as they did not wish to be subjected to the rough and tumble "bar crowd". I challenge you to find another like it in the country. Why would you want to get rid of such a treasure.

You should look into the history of Troy. Once one of the most successful cities in the country, there were many restaurants in the area and the South End Tavarn did not have a lock on business there. It was far from "being virtually the only restaurant-bar" but it was a landmark. It was a favorite lunch spot for a quick beer (or four) for those in the mill down the road and a favorite spot after work. But at night, when the restaurant opened a few years after it was established, it was a favorite spot for many in the Albany and Troy and remained so until about the early to mid 60's when the cities were being left behind in the rush to the suburbs.

The "blue collar crowd" that make up the many and varied patrons of Burkies include some the wealthest and most revered in the country. Henry Fonda never stepped foot in the place but ordered takeout twice on his rare visits to visit daughter Jane up the road.

He was not alone. Many of the social elite both in the area and around the U.S. visited the tavern as it was a favorite of many in the state.

No, Burkie's is not the Ritz and never tried to be. But it is no dive. It is part of the past still alive and largely unchanged and thank God for it. You just have to keep your nose a little less elevated if you are to enjoy the simpler style it offers.

unknown said...

By the way, I was wrong about the ownership. Marty Sr. did found the bar back in 1934. I forgot that he was the original owner. Sorry about the error.

Jim Lewis said...

I ate at Burkies a time or two.

My first experience was after a friend and I delivered a bed I'd made to a customer back in the 80s. It was Beef Stew night and we each ordered a bowl.

I was amazed to find that each serving had as much shredded beef heaped up above the rim as below the rim inside the bowl— and the bowls were not small. The waiter put a half loaf of white bread and a pound block of butter on the table, and left us to our dinner.

It had been a long day and we were hungry. The waiter came back to give us another half-loaf after we finished the first and later, the check.

I don't remember how much it cost, but at a fancier place you could have bought a much smaller, but no tastier, portion for more.

Now my wife owns a restaurant, and I don't get out much. I wonder how they are doing.

Mike O'Day said...

Sadly the 3rd generation of Burkes recently gave up the ghost, "Burkies" is no more.

Mike O'Day

Anonymous said...

Interesting blog on the South End Tavern. I ate lunch there almost 5 days a week for 9 years (1961-1970). Great food (not pretensious) I remember when the price of a bowl of the best beef stew I have ever had went from $0.35 to $0.50, we screamed but kept eating there. The bowl was large and came with a loaf of Predigers rye bread and a pound of butter.
As for the wait staff they were off duty Troy policeman, a little rough around the edges but great guys.

Anonymous said...

I don't remember the day of the week it was, but they had a corned beef and cabbage night and I rarely missed it when I lived in South Troy while attending school there.

I can vouch for the blocks of butter and half-loaf of bread.

My regular spot was on bar/kitchen side in the back near the dishwashing machine and the cooks.

This blog post evokes many fond memories!

Joan Bondy said...

My dad, Rudy Helmo, used to stop by there for the hamburgers (served on white bread with a slice of raw onion--yum) after his art classes in Albany or Menands. He'd recommend the hamburgers to his students or anyone else. I still remember those burgers too, and the window curtains, stiff with the dust of the ages. This would have been in the 1960's, mostly.

Unknown said...

Sorry to read of the closing of the South End Tavern. My memories are from the late 50's and early 60's when as a family,my mom worked in Menands and my dad was a letter carrier in Troy, we would meet on Fridays for dinner at Marty Burkes.
The food was great and us kids loved playing the big old nickelodeon jukebox until the food arrived. We always went with a pocket full of nickels. Who can ever forget the fabulous Prediger's Bakery rye bread, another institution sadly no loner in existence.

Joe Alber, So. Calif.

Kevin Dunbar, Tampa FL said...

Marty Burke was in my class at LaSalle and I always looked forward to seeing him
on my infrequent trips back to Troy. The steamed clams were my favorite. I left the area in my early 20's but have fond memories of family dinners at Burkes in the 50's and 60's when many entrees were less than $1.00. And yes, the Predigers bread from Green Island was a staple.

My Dad was a native of South Troy and his Dad along with many of my relatives were patrons over the years.

It was truly a time machine and a great loss to a City already in steep decline.