clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Preps, Yuppies, and an Unsavory Past at Dorrian's Red Hand

New, 5 comments

This is the latest edition of Who Goes There? a regular feature in which Lost City's Brooks of Sheffield cracks the doors on mysteriously enduring Gotham restaurants—unsung, curious neighborhood mainstays with the dusty, forgotten, determined look—to learn secrets of longevity and find out, who goes there.

[Adam Lerner]

James "Red Dog" Dorrian, a native of Ulster, Ireland, opened this restaurant in 1960, when he was in his '20s. The area was mainly German back then, and Dorrian's Red Hand was one of a wave of "new old-fashioned" bars that opened in the area, taverns intended to look like older New York saloons. Thus, the wooden floors, tin ceilings, red-and-white checkered tablecloths. Nostalgia is nothing new in New York; it just used to mimic different eras.

At some point, the Dorrian clan bought the building the eatery occupies, thus ensuring its survival. Had they not, who knows if the business would have withstood the events and aftermath of Aug. 26, 1986. That was the night when Dorrian's teenage "regular" Robert Chambers, aka "The Preppy Killer," left the bar with another teenager, Jennifer Levin. Chambers was later arrested when Levin turned murdered in Central Park, and subsequently convicted of manslaughter. The "red hand" of the name—which refers to a particularly gruesome myth attached to the late kings of Ulster—proved an unfortunate moniker at that moment. It was subsequently played down.

History weirdly repeated itself in 2009, when student Imette St. Guillen disappeared from The Falls, a SoHo bar that was owned by Michael Dorrian and managed by Daniel Dorrian, sons of Dorrian's current owner, Jack. St. Guillen wound up dead. The more you dig into Dorrian history, the more confused you get. Family members seem to be everywhere, and own restaurants and bars all over New York. One married Giuliani's former chief of staff. An ancestor was reportedly a Prohibition bootlegger. One day, they'll provide fodder for a good book.

Today, Dorrian's remains popular with the blue blazer crowd despite (or maybe because of) the sordid Chambers history. Yuppies, Preppies, Ivy Leaguers, whatever you want to call them—and people call them much worse—they're here. It's also favored by certain New York Yankees, who can watch themselves on the large television opposite the long, beaten wooden bar, and probably excite the Yuppies and Preppies a great deal. If you want to avoid this crowd altogether, go for lunch or early dinner, when it's pretty deserted. According to my waitress, Dorrian's remains pretty much a neighborhood joint, frequented by folks who live in the east 80's along Second Avenue. "Most people who come here I see around the area," said my waitress. "Except on weekend nights, when a lot of singles come."
—Brooks of Sheffield

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Eater New York newsletter

The freshest news from the local food world