18 December 2012

Remembering Harvey's Chelsea House

Back in the early '90s, when I was a non-blogging, budding sentimentalist, I worked for a time at a horrible theatre trade magazine in the Flatiron District. (It wasn't called that at the time.) In my attempts to distance myself from my boss and duties, I would use my lunch hour to range as far from my office as possible.

I remember frequently passing an old restaurant at 108 W. 18th Street which has a grand, vertical, three-story sign that said "Harvey's." Peering in, I saw a long bar, high ceilings, tile floors, beveled glass and a dining room in the back. It was one of my first impressions of what was meant by the term Olde New York.

I didn't know much about the place, and soon thereafter it closed for good. I have been obsessed with the joint every sense. Recently I decided to find out more about the restaurant that still haunts my memory. It was worth the inquiry. 

When Harvey's Chelsea House closed in December 1991, it was 102 years old. A man named Dick Harvey had owned it for its final 16 years of its existence. He told the New York Times that taxes, insurance and utility costs, compounded by a bad economy, had forced him to close. 

Harvey's Chelsea House opened in 1889 as a kind of dark-wooded, manly eatery that was prevalent and popular at that time. It was finely appointed. It had a 40-foot bar of red, burled, Honduras mahogany, crystal cabinetwork, a brass clock and rear cabinets of bevelled glass. I'm not sure what it was called back then—it seems to have been called the Old Chelsea Restaurant at some point—but certainly not Harvey's Chelsea House. Dick Harvey took over the location in 1977. He, at the time, also managed 0'Neal's Balloon, had reopened the Landmark Tavern, and had a reputation as "the fastest bartender who has ever worked New York," according to The New Yorker. Harvey refinished the mahogany and added five chandeliers and an historic display of bar-and-res-taurant glassware. (That means that the "old" sign outside I admire so much was no older than 14 years when I saw it.)

After Harvey gave up the fight, the place remained closed for a while, then was reopened as Tonic by one Steve Tzolis, the principal owner of Il Cantinori, Periyali and Aureole, all restaurants in Manhattan. 

A newspaper described the new incarnation thusly: "I figured the owners would simply rip it apart and sell the fixtures and that if it ever reopened, it would be painted white. So it was a wonderful surprise to walk in on a recent night to find the place looking much as I remembered, only better. (It has been spruced up and is now a warm red.) It is also a scene. Young executives in pinstriped business suits, guys in white T-shirts and bikers’ jackets, lithe young women in jeans or black dresses were packed several deep at the bar, and they weren’t all just waiting for tables. The maĆ®tre d’ led me away from this merry throng into the room next door, which, although full and lively, seemed quiet by comparison. It was like being sent to sit with the grown-ups. My friends were already at the table."

Tonic didn't take. The building was torn down in 2006. What became of the beautiful bar, the mahogany, the cast iron, the glass, the brass? Junked or broken up and sold.


maximum bob said...

This used to be my main hangout.
I used to work out at a gym a block away and would hit the bar afterwards for a burger and a beer.
It was an elegant, grownup place.
The night before I got married, my best friends and I came here for dinner and drinks.This was the 80's.
I will never forget Harvey's and that time in general.
If I could go back in time I would jettison this age of mediocrity in a nanosecond.

Lionel said...

It was a great place with one of the finest bars I spent time belling up to. It had two old fashioned cash registers that were functioning and used. Some very talented artist did an oil painting that depicted the bar and was beautifully accurate. I was heartbroken when it was no more. I would occasionally see the actress Sandy Dennis in the back having a sandwich. Interestingly, many of the bartenders, and or owners, always referred to the bars that they worked at as ‘the store’, kind of a holdover from old New York. It was a truly beautiful barroom.

Lynn Caraganis said...

It had aqua-colored velvet curtains that went to the floor. It seems they went all around the walls. Because if there were windows behind the curtains-- who even cared, it was so cosy. We always went there for my birthday, even when we had to go in from out of town. Now I'm reminded of it when I answer the security question "what is your favorite restaurant?"
'Harvey's Chelsea Restaurant,' I say, and I feel bad, I want to say, 'but it's not there anymore.' Lynn

Bbethany7 said...

During the 80's Dick Harvey spent less time at the restaurant, his attention diverted to his passion for expensive antique cars. He also took extended trips, leaving a relative and other employees to run the place.
This led to unfortunate decreases in revenue, putting the place in a hole. When Harvey tried to straighten up the floundering ship it was too late. He had also opened a place on 11th Ave. in the 40's, not exactly a great location. So you can see the trouble he was in.

Bruce Bethany

Jody Larson said...

The Old Chelsea Restaurant, which was its name prior to "Harvey's," was owned for a time by my uncle Lowell Larsen. I spent the summer of 1966 in NYC and used to hang out there. It was a great place to be, with all the beautiful wood. Folks from NBC studio used to come over for lunch. Uncle Lowell had a bar cat, and once he threw a man out because he shoved the cat.

After Uncle Lowell died, his wife, Daphne, abandoned the restaurant. I'm so glad to find your blog and learn some of the history that happened after that! I'm sorry to hear it's all gone now. I loved being there.

Unknown said...

I worked at an auto parts store on the corner of 6th and 16th in the late '70s and used to go to Harvey's frequently after work. Got pretty friendly with the bartenders (mostly gay, who went with me to the premiere of the movie "Cruising" in which I was an extra). Dick Harvey used to have a vintage Buick Riviera that was often parked out front. On display in the bar were photo-realistic paintings of the bar interior and also of that car with a parking garage employee that was often sitting out front. I hung out there with some car salesmen from the (at that time) only BMW dealership in town, Transatlantic BMW which was on the corner of 6th and 18th. Also considered having my wedding there (1984).

Unknown said...

Rob V. Glen, Scottie, Dean. all the staff. Great people fabulous ambiance.
Chicken Washington, The Grupper, Soda Bread, Dick running around after a hunting trip asking people at the bar if they would like to try rattle snake that he had brought back. Over cooked and dry I might add. Probably Dicks way to get you to order another drink.
I closed that bar many a nights. Was a great neighborhood bar. I had a loft on 20th street had many many many meals there.

Unknown said...

I was a waiter at Harveys in 77 and 78. Dick was a great guy to work for. I still talk about those times. The painting that hung in the restaurant is now in a restaurant called kid shelleen's in Wilmington Delaware. Also the restaurant scene in the pilot of Law & Order with Michael Moriarty was shot at Harvey's.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

Unknown: What painting are you speaking of? I contacted Kid Shelleen's and they don't know of any painting.--Brooks

Dshi said...

The bar from Harvey's still exists and can be found in a restaurant called The Bar Room on 60th Street between Lexington Avenue and Park Avenue.

Anonymous said...

I have never liked a restaurant more. Harvey was congenial; the food and service were excellent; and the old New York atmosphere was pervasive and uplifting. Once, in the seventies, friends and I indirectly caused Harvey to injure himself. We were celebrating a New York Yankees pennant or series win and we splurged by ordering champagne. Ever in good humor, Harvey delivered it in the floor cooler himself. Somehow ice or water dripped onto the floor and Harvey slipped badly. On my next visit, I learned that he had incurred a painful knee injury and needed an operation administered, I was told, by Joe Naimith's doctor.