An Old Lion Roars Again

From 1966 to 1996, a bar called the Lion’s Head operated

from a basement-level entrance on Christopher Street

in Greenwich Village. It was generally known as a

politicians’ joint-a place where patrons claimed they saw the likes of Robert

F. Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy, where Ed Koch would sometimes have lunch-and

also a literati place, where Fred Exley, author of A Fan’s Notes, supposedly

would go to get sauced. But more than anything, the Lion’s Head was a home-the

home-for a generation of reporters: a bar where Daily News and New York Post

and New York Newsday and Village Voice reporters would go at the end of

ordinary, news-less days and epic stories alike. It was a place where

journalists celebrated going-away and birthday parties, deaths and Pulitzer

Prizes. It was a place where a writer knew he’d made it if his book jacket

showed up framed on the wall.

In 1993, longtime bartender Michael Reardon bought the

Lion’s Head for what would be its final shift. Three years later, faced with

rising rent and terminal lung cancer, Mr. Reardon closed both the bar and an

era in the city.

On Sunday, Oct. 14, to mark the fifth anniversary of the

bar’s closing, many

Lion’s Head alumni returned to their old haunt for the first

time. Now something called the Kettle of Fish, it bore little resemblance to

the place they knew. Mirrors and stock black-and-white pictures of baseball

players (Joe DiMaggio, Jackie Robinson, Mickey Mantle) occupy the walls where

the book jackets hung. There are TV’s and dartboards. If they’d left a place

that was a testament to the alcoholic kinship of writers, then the former

patrons had returned to a sports bar.

“God,” said the Post’s Bill Hoffman. “It’s just soo-oo much

cleaner. You can actually see the floor. It used to look black.”

Mr. Hoffman scanned the room and his colleagues. “I thought

everyone would look terrible, but they all look great,” he said. “I think it’s

because we haven’t been in here drinking.”

It had, of course, been quite a month for journalists in the

city. Who would ever have imagined the presence of grief counselors at each of

the city’s papers? Or anthrax, for goodness’ sake? The Lion’s Head reunion

seemed to come at a time when it was needed most.

“This place would have been packed on Sept. 11-packed,” said

Pat Sullivan, a onetime editor and reporter at the Post who moved on to the

Daily News and Channel 7 before landing at ABC News. “Everyone would be in

here, talking about how they scooped one another and telling their stories. And

they’d be lying; you could bet they’d be lying.”

Newsday’s Sheila McKenna, who first came as a

twentysomething in the 1970’s and wrote about the bar’s closing, agreed. 

“We would have been living in here,” Ms. McKenna said. “This

is what we needed: a place where you could come and talk with everybody.

There’s no place like it. You talk about Sebastian Junger’s bar, but I don’t

know anyone that goes there. Do reporters go there?”

The News’ Pete Hamill, who practically lived within the

bar’s environs before he quit drinking, didn’t show up for the Oct. 14 reunion,

but Frank McCourt did. A Lion’s Head regular while he was still a schoolteacher

and not the Frank McCourt, he sat on a couch with an Absolut on the rocks. He

talked about coming to the bar on its opening night in 1966 with the Irish

singer Paddy Clancy, about seeing Bob Dylan and Seamus Heaney.

“This was the only literary and journalistic bar in the

city,” Mr. McCourt said, “and we haven’t got anything like it. It was a place

where you could really grieve. It was like the outer room of a therapist’s

office.”

Once Mr. McCourt left his seat, Jack Deacy, a spokesman for

the Administration for Children’s Services who once worked for the Village

Voice, the Daily News and New York,

offered some advice.  

“Don’t believe everything McCourt tells you,” Mr. Deacy

said. “He’s got a silver tongue. That’s what happens when you come into the

Lion’s Head.”

-Sridhar Pappu

‘Tempted’ By Rarebit

On a recent morning, as Madison

Square Garden

prepped for a massive benefit concert featuring creaky rock legends like Mick

Jagger and Paul McCartney, a small crowd gathered in a corner of Grand Central

Station’s Vanderbilt Hall to watch Glenn Tilbrook, lead singer of the chirpy

80’s British pop band Squeeze, stand at a small counter and prepare Welsh

rarebit. The demonstration was part of the city’s “U.K.

with N.Y.” festival, which began on Oct. 14 and runs through Oct. 28.

Mr. Tilbrook, who is 44 years old and has blue eyes, wavy

brown hair and pink, jolly cheeks, has (like a lot of his colleagues in the

boomer-rocker department) gotten to the point where he looks a bit more

believable as a chef than a teen idol. Perhaps this is why, as New Yorkers on

their way to work lingered to watch, Mr. Tilbrook put out a hand-scrawled sign

on the floor reading: “YES I AM THAT BLOKE FROM SQUEEZE.”

Welsh rarebit, of course, is not the cuisine of Cool

Britannia and its Terence Conran restaurants and Ian Schrager hotels. It’s

British comfort food-basically cheese on toast. Mr. Tilbrook and his childhood

chum Nicky Perry, the owner of Tea & Sympathy, the Greenwich

Village teahouse, laid out the ingredients: grated cheddar cheese,

stale beer, eggs, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco,

mustard, butter, salt and pepper.

While Ms. Perry vigorously stirred, Mr. Tilbrook conducted

his cooking demonstration like a mini rock show. As he poured in the beer, he

said, “It’s stale, but there aren’t any cigarette butts in it like I usually

find in the morning.” Later, he lay prone on the counter to shake in some Tabasco

sauce and, Lagasse-like, had the audience come close and sniff the bowl.

As the bread was toasting, Mr. Tilbrook strapped on his

guitar to play “Sunday Breakfast Treat,” a song containing step-by-step

instructions on how to make the dish that sounded surprisingly similar to the

catchy tunes he and his Squeeze-mates cranked out during the era of Trapper

Keepers and Members Only. (Squeeze was the sensible shoe of the 80’s

British-pop invasion: milder than the Jam, less pained than the Smiths,

brainier than Duran Duran.) “I had never heard of anyone doing a recipe song,

and I had this little melody in my head, so I wrote one,” Mr. Tilbrook said of

his new composition.

Meanwhile, Ms. Perry kept stirring. “Glenn is obsessed with

my Welsh rarebit, but I think his might be a bit better,” said Ms. Perry. “I

don’t use the beer, you see, since we are in kind of an A.A. zone with a lot of

our customers.”  The teahouse

entrepreneur grew up with Mr. Tilbrook in Blackheath, on the outskirts of London,

where their affair with Welsh rarebit began at a local tea shop called Jobbins.

“I was 14 and Glenn was 15, and we were so broke it’s all we could afford,” Ms.

Perry said. Welsh rarebit has been on Tea & Sympathy’s menu since it

opened, and Ms. Perry said she used to make trays of it for Mr. Tilbrook’s tour

bus when he passed through New York.

“I never have anything else at Nicky’s place,” Mr. Tilbrook

said. “And the only place in London

to get a good one, besides my kitchen, is Fortnum & Mason.” That’s where he

took his girlfriend and road manager, Suzanne Hunt, for her birthday this year,

he said. Three guesses as to what they ate.

Of course, half the crowd in Grand Central that morning

couldn’t have cared less if Mr. Tilbrook was making baby back ribs, candied

yams and collard greens. They wanted to hear him sing “Pulling Mussels (From

the Shell),” “Take Me, I’m Yours” or perhaps “Black Coffee in Bed.”

“I worked at my college radio station, and I used to follow

Squeeze around back in the 80’s,” one woman said. “One more song, one more

song!”

Mr. Tilbrook obliged with “Take Me, I’m Yours” while the

toast was topped with tomatoes, cut into quarters and served by Ms. Perry’s

husband, Sean. Everyone got a piece.

-Sunshine Flint