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Bill's Gay Nineties, Not a Tourist or Craft Cocktail in Sight

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, and the originator of the "A Beer At..." column, takes a peek inside Gotham’s more anonymous watering holes, one by one. Follow him on Twitter.

[Jenny Adams]

Bill's Gay Nineties on E. 54th, between Park and Mad, is not exactly obscure. But neither is it world famous. In the Old New York Tavern department, it is overshadowed by P.J. Clarke's over on Third. And in the race between storied former speakeasies, nearby "21" Club beats it by a furlong. Yet, Bill's has its champions, and they came out in force a few weeks ago when it was reported that the owner was experiencing landlord problems, and that high-end restauranteur John DeLucie (Crown, The Lion) was circling the property.

To its regulars, Bill's does not need improving, and its removal would be a tragedy of epic proportions. This is a Little-Olde-New-York-style watering hole without the gimmicks, the ballyhoo, the touristic overlay. It still functions as a regular bar, not a celebrated landmark constantly profiled by reporters and listed in guide books. The small, low-ceiling downstairs bar—the heart of the joint, the cavernous upstairs eating hall notwithstanding—is filled with the faithful any given night. Tourists are scarce. Bill's gets a businessman crowd. There is no dress code, yet most of the men you see at 5:30 PM are wearing suits and (loosened) ties. The white-wine-nursing women, too, look professional.

The patrons aren't too particular about their drinks, and if you are, Bill's is probably not your kinda place. The bartenders are career men in their 50s. They left behind the rigors and flash of their profession long ago. Whatever the cocktail order, they will process in the same way, casually shaking the ingredients for 15 seconds in a tin filled with weak ice, and then straining it into a waiting glass. My Manhattan needed a stir, not a shake, but a shake is what it got. It also needed Wild Turkey Bourbon—the liquor I specified—but it got Maker's Mark.

I chose not to complain. The drink was strong, and craft cocktails is not why I go to Bill's. I go for ambiance, for history, for a sense of a New York tavern continuum, for the pictures of pre-Great War pugilists and stage stars on the walls (the founder, Bill Hardy, was a former boxer and married a Ziegfeld girl). I go for bartenders as friendly and gentle as they come; for one of the finer burgers in town. I go for the ornate woodwork and stained glass on the swinging doors; for the old phone booth (which worked until a couple years ago); for "Bill's" spelled out in silver dollars on the floor; for the coat check girls who gossip in Russian; for the nightly piano music; for the middle-aged pals who toast and treat each other. I go because its in an 1850s townhouse in a neighborhood where there are few buildings older than 1920; because the bar has been owned by only two families in its 87 years; because they've had the same maitre d' for forty years, even though a place like this doesn't need a maitre d'. I go because it's a down-to-earth antidote to Graydon Carter's Monkey Bar high life across the street. I go because there used to be tons of places like Bill's, and now, since there ain't, I go because there's no place like Bill's.
Robert Simonson