There are more than 6,000 bars in New York City. About 200 of them get regular press. This column is about the other ones. Robert Simonson, a journalist and blogger of the drinking life, takes a peek inside Gotham’s more anonymous watering holes, one by one.
The jukebox at Reynold’s Café played a Spanish ballad one recent rainy Saturday afternoon. It then played “Maria” from “West Side Story,” sung by Johnny Mathis. This Washington Heights corner tavern is just that kind of place. If it was once, like the neighborhood, an Irish stronghold, the bar is now shared by more recent Hispanic immigrants. Unlike the two gangs in “West Side Story,” however, the bar’s patrons—mostly old men—long ago made their peace. The groups don’t exactly intermingle, but neither do they fight. And there is room for joking. As one garrulous Irishman said from the bar, for all to hear, “Since I’m in a Spanish bar, I wanna say My Irish mother said that on her mother’s side, she can trace her lineage to Seville.”
The Gaelic quaffers tended to favor the question-mark-shaped, wooden bar. They wore windbreakers and baseball caps and drank bottled beer. (There is nothing on draft at Reynolds Café.) The longnecks saved their places when they went outside for a smoke, which was often. The Hispanic men drank wine, convened around small round tables, and wore nattily dressed in suits, Cuban shirts and straw hats. What both sectors seemed to have in common—unless I am very much mistaken—was gambling. There was an intense examination of newspapers, and much cash brandished in hand and counted. A lumpen, bald man never left off the video poker game in one dark corner. Could this explain the presence of odd illustration on the wall entitled “The Gamblers” and the old photograph of a bygone casino?
The barkeep, wearing a short-sleeved, button down shirt, a proper tie pulled up to the collar, and a shiny black toupee, seemed the sort to keep a secret. He said, in an Irish brogue, that the bar dated from Prohibition and the current owner has run it for 45 years. Nothing was said about the mounted deer head above the bar, or the more alarming bits of taxidermy: a bobcat’s head and a full-length ferret. The men’s room, used frequently, is behind an exceedingly narrow wooden door at the end of the bar. The ladies’ room is not as convenient—it’s down a flight of stairs as tight as those that lead below deck on a ship. No matter. There were no women about.
More Mathis played: “Chances Are.” The Reynolds crowd is not an unsentimental one. An elderly Puerto Rican handyman, employed by the bar to do odd jobs, is treated by the regulars as some sort of mascot, back-slapped and hailed from across the room. And the playing of the weepy anthem of selfless love, “Angel of the Morning,” might lead to a spontaneous sing-a-long. The original version, not the later cover by Juice Newton.