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A Beer At?The Rum House

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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.

[Krieger, 7/1/09]

The Rum House, at 228 West 47th Street, is one of the few low-down, no-frills, on-the-cheap bars left in the Theatre District. But, unlike fellow survivors like Jimmy’s Corner, it’s never been particularly celebrated. It’s also an example of that midtown rarity: a hotel bar with a discernible personality. The Rum House is part of Edison Hotel, and, like the Café Edison—its diner neighbor just across the lobby—it seems to belong to an earlier, most raffish Times Square era.

Demi-curtains cover the lower half of the windows looking onto West 47th Street. A piano bar—or rather, an organ bar—dominates one side of the snug space. And huge, wooden circular chandeliers, with lanterns hanging off them, give the dark space a vaguely nautical feel. There are no glistening, six-ounce dirty martinis ordered here. Just cheap beers served by a kind, blonde waitress with a seen-it-all centeredness. She’s worked here as long as anyone can remember and is not easily fazed.

It’s all fairly uncool, and even if you’re a dive-loving ironist, you might find the Rum House on the humdrum side. On a recent night, a group of roving young fabulousi waltzed in and, essaying the utter unhipness of the place, turned on heel and waltzed right out. Then again, soon after another 20-something pack passed through the wooden breezeway and decided to remain. But these turned out to be theatre geeks, a tribe for which unhipness has never been a dealbreaker.

Ready to entertain the geeks, and sundry businessmen, was Karen Brown. Brown performs most nights, pumping away at the muffled organ and lending her flutey voice to standards that range from “Fly Me to the Moon” to “Margaritaville.” There are many framed photos behind the organ of a younger Brown posing with the likes of Christian Slater, Mel Brooks and a very-embarrassed looking Nathan Lane.

Brown prepares herself with a veteran Broadwayite’s fussiness. The first thing she did upon arriving was turn off the TV and unplug the jukebox. (The latter is an interesting specimen. Each song it plays takes about 20 seconds to reach full volume, arriving like a train coming out of a long tunnel. It’s very dramatic, in its way.) Brown then adjusted her single spotlight, set out her latest CD for purchase and dropped a five-dollar bill inside a gigantic fish bowl that serves as a tip jar. On a recent night, the eve of her birthday, she accepted gifts and flowers with the magnanimous equanimity of a queen.

The geeks ate up her set. They clapped, fox-trotted a bit, and order more vodka and cranberries. But not rum. Say, bartender—Is much rum served at The Rum House. (I had to ask.) “A few.”
— Robert Simonson