Tears at the Old Town

When Larry Meagher was a boy growing up in Depression-era Greenpoint, the copper steeple of St. When Larry Meagher was a boy growing up in Depression-era Greenpoint, the copper steeple of St. Cecilia’s church would have been prominent on the low-slung skyline. These days, it sits in the shadow of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. But on the morning of Tuesday, Feb. 20, a throng of Meagher’s friends and family found the church in the melting snow, to send him off. Meagher, the owner of the august Old Town Bar & Restaurant, died on Feb. 15 at the age of 81. His bar has sat, like some kind of grumpy, beloved holdout, on a nondescript block one street north of Union Square, and it has never lost the dim glamour—the place seems lit in perpetual twilight—that it must have held when it opened in 1892. It was Meagher’s natural habitat, and so it’s where some 40 of his mourners gathered after the funeral to drink to his memory. His brother Raymond Meagher, 73, was sitting in a darkened booth. “What first attracted him here was, they had meetings down the street,” Raymond said, referring to his brother’s post as a representative for the photo engravers’ union, whose offices were located at 19th Street and Park Avenue South. Originally a copy boy at the original New York Sun, Meagher was forced to move when the paper was merged with the New York World-Telegram in 1950. He became a photo engraver with the new umbrella publication before joining the World Journal Tribune. “He came in here every so often after meetings,” his brother remembered. When he left the newspaper business, he started opening taverns: one in Cobble Hill, another in Greenpoint. He had to close his Cobble Hill bar after an altercation between one of his bartenders and a customer—his barman had smashed a picture over the patron’s head—resulted in a lawsuit. For a time, he focused on his bar in Greenpoint. It was there that he developed his pronounced ideas about what a bar and restaurant should be. But the lunchtime crowd, and the daytime drinkers, proved too few to keep the business going, and he decided Manhattan was where he had to be. In the 1970’s, he started working at Old Town as a manager for Henry Lohden. At that time, it had no kitchen, but a massive construction project nearby was flooding the bar with young construction workers having beer for lunch. As Meagher’s friends tell it, the foreman of the construction job, who was an ex-Marine, came over to him and said, “Listen, something’s gotta be done, because my guys are drunk on the job.” And so Meagher developed a two-dollar sandwich spread that was the beginnings of his restaurant at Old Town. And he reopened the upstairs dining room, which had once been the only part of Old Town where women were allowed. Meagher was soon the heart of the business; and when he started to take over the day-to-day operations of the place from Henry in the late 60’s and early 70’s, “the only people here were truckers and Andy Warhol’s crowd from his Factory around the corner,” said Meagher’s son, Gerard Meagher. “Twenty years ago, this place was kind of funky,” Peter (Chip) Sylvester, a bartender at Old Town for the last 21 years, agreed. Mr. Sylvester remembered how his boss wanted to keep the place welcoming and low-key. “We had people come in here that were like well-known people, and they were obnoxious,” he said. “He’d tell them to get out—because half the time, he didn’t know who they were.” Gerard, who has more or less assumed his father’s role, was sitting on a stool at the corner of the bar. Piled up next to him were boxes filled with memorabilia. From among the pictures and folders of press clippings, he pulled out a stack of posters that his father had drawn up and hung in the window of his bar. One read, “This is a peasant bar, which makes it a pleasant bar, the only BIG SHOTS we serve are in the drinks.” That tradition of the sign, meant to deflate New York’s imperious social elites, survives to this day. In the window of the Old Town last week, the bar picked a fight with Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, whose Waverly Inn is arguably an ersatz and swanky version of the Old Town. Mr. Carter’s establishment, the sign screamed, is “restricted to an elite who get the ‘hush hush’ secret reservation number.’” The sign quaintly suggested that Mr. Carter return to his native Canada and take the “poseurs, rear-end kissers, shit-healers and half-assed celebrities” who form his clientele with him. And yet the Old Town does enjoy a certain kind of New York celebrity visitor, with signed photographs all over its walls from the likes of Frank McCourt, Chlöe Sevigny, Thomas Kelly, Seamus Heaney and Jim Dwyer. Nor has Meagher’s bar itself been spared the glitzy spotlight, appearing as it does in the old opening credits of Late Night with David Letterman, as well as in The Last Days of Disco, Bullets Over Broadway and Madonna’s “Bad Girl” video. That, said his friends, is all completely different. “I could tell you a couple of things, but one of the reasons celebrities liked coming here was that they never got put in the paper,” Mr. Sylvester said.