Thursday, June 3, 2010

Bill's Gay 90s

During my last meal at Gino, a topic of conversation around the bar, among the regulars, was "Where do we go now?" Until Michael of Gino's opens up, someone suggested Bill's Gay 90s, not too far away on 54th between Park and Madison.

It's a good suggestion. Bill's has been around even longer than Gino, since 1924 when it began as a speakeasy. It's so old, Tallulah Bankhead drank there. Like "21," it's even got a jockey at the door.

I stepped through the hand-carved, stained-glass swinging doors for a drink at Bill's Silver Dollar Bar and mentioned to the bartender that Gino's displaced regulars might give Bill's a try as their new home. He welcomed them, and said to a woman at the bar, "Hey, the people from Gino's might be coming over here."

"Well, alright," she said, "bring 'em in." And then, "Did you hear they're making it into a cupcake place? Can you fucking believe it?"

Good people at Bill's.

Says Bill's website, "this jewel in the crown of Roaring Twenties nightlife continues to defy the powers that be (progress now and development) while holding its sacred ground for a clientele, in some cases, four generations old. You’ll find everything just as it was in Bill’s, unchanged and unspoiled."

It's true. Not much has changed since the place first opened. It's still got the comfortable, brown air of a very old bar. On the walls are ancient pictures of boxers and racehorses, along with lovely Ziegfeld girls, all long dead and gone. There's also a wooden telephone booth with an accordion door, and an upright piano inviting you to sing along.

And the feeling inside is right. It was surprisingly quiet when I was there. It wasn't touristy, like I thought it might be, and it lacked the typical bar-crawly crowds that mass in other good, old bars like McSorley's, Pete McManus, the Corner Bistro, or Chumley's when it was still standing.

So go to Bill's, but go soon--you never know where cupcakes will attack next.

See more photos.


EV Grieve said...

Ah yes, good call Jeremiah.

BrooksNYC said...

In all these years, I've never heard of Bill's. Look forward to stopping in!

According to Bill's web site,the bar's eighty-something host, Aldo Leone, is the grandson of the original Mama Leone. Isn't that a sweet link to past?

Thanks for the heads-up.

Jeremiah Moss said...

Brooks, i'm not surprised--i've rarely heard of it myself. and it definitely has that "undiscovered" feel about it.

i wonder if the word "gay" in the name keeps out the fratty riff-raff and contributes to its being "off the radar."

BrooksNYC said...

Could people possibly be that dense? As if I didn't know.

Whatever the reason, let's not argue with success. I'm glad it's off the radar, and hope it stays that way!

Jeremiah Moss said...

that's the trouble with talking/writing about things "out loud," they might come off the radar.

Stephen said...

Love this place! Misread this post and for a second thought you wrote that Bill's was being turned into a cupcake shop...BTW if that ever happens I am finding another city to live in.

Anonymous said...

I used to work in that neighborhood and would sometimes go there for lunch, but never really frequented it as a bar. It wasn't really the kind of place for an important business lunch with a client you want to impress, but more like a place to take visiting family/friends to show them a different kind of cool in New York establishments.

Grade "A" Fancy said...

Coincidentally, we had a nite-cap at Bill's after Gino's and Donohue's on Friday night. Cheers!

Alana said...

glad they're off the radar too, will make a point to swing by.

Upstate Johnny G said...

I stumbled upon Bill's about 8 or 9 years ago but was i a rush and didn't have time to stop in. I promised myself I"d get back there but for some reason I had it in my head that it was up in the 60's and when I couldn't find it again (and I couldn't remember the name...but that's another story...) I thought it had already gone out. Thankfully I finally found Bill's for the second time a couple of years ago and this time I went in and had a drink and had a wonderful conversation with Jack, who's the owner's (Barbara) squeeze.

Jack explained to me that Barbara's father acquired the place from Bill himself and that said Bill, being an ex-boxer (not an X Boxer) and ex-jockey and who loved show girls, filled the place with boxing, racing, and Broadway memorabilia. You can eat in the bar but there's also a large dining room upstairs whose walls are covered with framed posters and playbills from around WW One or so.

There's a piano player most nights and some fun sing-alongs. If you saw the movie "Michael Clayton", Bill's was the location for the sort of wake that Clayton's law firm held after their big litigator committed "suicide".

The bad news is that neither Jack nor Barbara owns the building, but my understanding is that the air rights were sold long ago which makes the building much less of an attractive target for developers.

Go to Bill's. Go often. Eat. Drink. Sing. Love life.