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
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
‘Tempted’ By Rarebit
On a recent morning, as Madison
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
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.