In the final decades of the last century, Manhattan was paved with Blarney Stones. Not the Irish Republic’s biggest tourist trap in a castle north of Cork, but a string of franchised bars named after it. At one time there were 34, not to mention multiple imitators with names like Blarney Castle and Blarney Cove. How did these differ from the hundreds of tiny Irish bars that still exist in neighborhoods across the five boroughs? Well, instead of serving a strictly local constituency of regulars who might look up with annoyance at newcomers who happen to wander in, these Blarney Stones were massive public affairs that welcomed everyone, often with big windows, low beer prices, a minimum of Hibernian decorative frou-frou, and a very aggressive food program. In fact, through much of the second half of the 20th century, many working-class patrons looked upon these bars as the most reliable places to fill up on good greasy food and wash it down with cut-rate suds.
Lunch was when these places really came to life. I remember long bars with rickety stools, and equally long steam tables upon which would be displayed vast metallic reservoirs of beef stews, rotisserie chickens, shepherd’s pies, humongous turkey breasts, roast beefs oozing juices, and all the forms of fatty sliceable meats that briskets are capable of. And there was always meat loaf, served with volcanoes of mashed potato spurting brown gravy like lava. Back then, the heart would quicken at the thought of meatloaf. Nowadays, meatloaf is moribund. The cuisine served at the Blarney Stones seemed to be a cunning confusion of Irish, Jewish, and German influences.
Now there is only one of the original chain left, in an obscure corner of downtown near the Battery, shielded from oblivion by the twisting exits to the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. Walk in and be assailed by the musky smell of spilled beer. To your left is a long newly resurfaced bar shooting into the deep recesses of the establishment, whereat a scattering of citizens down their first beer of the day. A low wall separates barroom from dining room, which is outfitted with tables and banquettes stained a deep brown. At the end of the dining room is a chamber devoted exclusively to the steam table, which is now sadly empty except for a few cuts of meat, and a sandwich maker with a slicer whose job it is to wrangle the big hunks of beef and turkey like a cowboy on a ranch.
I sit with some friends near the front of the room, which is suffused with afternoon sunlight. A glance at the menu suggests that a larger proportion of it is now prepared in an unseen kitchen rather than culled from the steam table. Inevitably, the bill of fare has expanded to include Italian pizza and Mexican nachos. We can’t avoid ordering the so-called Irish nachos ($9.95), some not-very-good-by-themselves fries heaped with corned beef, bacon, onions, and cheese. What a gutbomb! Tuna, hot pastrami, and beef brisket sandwiches fill out our order. The pastrami is good, but sliced a little too thin. The brisket sandwich ($10.50) is superb, especially when you dunk each mellow bite into the brown gravy served on the side. Floury and salty, it is the antithesis of everything taught at culinary schools, but superbly delicious anyway.
We finished up our meal, reflecting sadly that it didn’t seem as if this Blarney Stone could stay open much longer. Indeed, it had suffered several reversals in this century. Opened back in 1968, it lost business after 9/11, though staying open to feed Ground Zero workers. By 2008, the premises were found to be so riddled with termites that the tavern was in danger of literal collapse. The next year, it was the subject of a Discovery Channel reality TV show, in which a construction crew restored the restaurant with new fixtures and furniture. As a museum of the way working class New Yorkers ate in pubs 50 years ago, the last Blarney Stone is unsurpassed. Give it a try before it disappears.