Has Donald R. Finley lost his eerie edge? Or is the founder of the Jekyll & Hyde Entertainment Group just fronting a mild-mannered alter ego?
For nearly two decades, the macabre-minded New York restaurateur has maintained a fanatical devotion to creepy kitsch.
Skeletal sentinels, including one corpse clutching a long, plastic spring-break-style beer flute, overlook the entrance to his seminal Slaughtered Lamb Pub on West Fourth Street.
His touristy, Jekyll & Hyde–themed restaurants, with locations in midtown and Greenwich Village, offer a special-effects-filled experience that is more kooky than spooky—not unlike Walt Disney World’s Haunted Mansion amusement ride, only with chicken fingers and fried calamari.
How bizarre, then, that Mr. Finley’s newest Manhattan eatery drops the creep-show shtick altogether.
Oliver’s Bar & Grill, located at the corner of Barrow and West Fourth streets, serves up not a single hair-raising element—except perhaps for the mysteriously malfunctioning Internet jukebox, which caused two of Counter Espionage’s fully paid song credits to vanish inexplicably last week.
While it may seem entirely out of sync with Mr. Finley’s standard modus operandi, Oliver’s comparatively nondescript ambiance is, however, eerily similar to the bar it replaced.
The changes are so subtle, in fact, that Sheridan Square–area frequenters might not even have noticed that the venue, formerly known as Boxers, had recently changed ownership, were it not for the new Oliver’s moniker printed in dramatic Indiana Jones–style script in the front window.
That, and the prior signage: “WE’VE LOST OUR LEASE. IF YOU’VE EVER ENJOYED BOXERS PLEASE SAY GOODBYE. THANK YOU FOR 18 YEARS OF PURE JOY.”
For more than two years, Mr. Finley had been scheming to take over the spacious 2,496-square-foot corner bar. According to the State Liquor Authority, his plans to shill potent potions at the site date back to May 2004.
But until 2007, those plans were put on hold while the landlord struggled to evict prior tavern operator Michael Hayes.
Court records of the lengthy standoff between Mr. Hayes—who, beginning in late 2002, refused to make tax-escalation payments on the $19,000-per-month rental space—and Lowell Associates, which owns the co-op building’s ground-level retail units, tell a lurid tale that ghost-story aficionados like Mr. Finley could appreciate.
Part of the legal dispute involved a mysterious rider to Mr. Hayes’ lease. The document, which the bar owner and his attorneys produced in court, seemed to provide a renewal option that might have extended Boxers’ stay on West Fourth Street—not to mention further thwarted Mr. Finley’s takeover plans.
The paper, court records show, appeared to be signed by an executive at Lowell Associates who had since died.
The landlord’s lawyers claimed that the rider was a forgery and produced witnesses to refute its authenticity. Manhattan Civil Court Judge Anil C. Singh—and, later, a panel of Appellate Division justices—agreed. Last September, the courts awarded possession of the bar back to the landlord.
If Mr. Finley had been looking for a haunting artifact to serve as the centerpiece for his newly leased pub, a framed copy of Mr. Hayes’ purported contract with the dead guy would’ve been a good option.
Instead, he chose to not disturb any lingering Boxers-era ghosts.
After all that time spent waiting and brainstorming, Mr. Finley decided against reincarnating his now-shuttered Jack the Ripper pub on West Fourth Street or coming up with some other ghastly theme. He simply rebranded the space Oliver’s, after his son.
And, after taking possession this past January, the traditionally reconstructive restaurateur—who reportedly spent $85,000 on pre-opening renovations at the Slaughtered Lamb in 1988, and $750,000 at his midtown Jekyll & Hyde Club in 1993—has instituted only minor revisions to the former Boxers.
Many members of the kitchen staff and at least one server previously employed by Mr. Hayes now work for Mr. Finley.
Apart from the change in name and ownership, the beer menu has been expanded, according to Oliver’s general manager, Adam Ramroop, and the staff is “way friendlier.” In the coming weeks, he added, management also plans to replace some of the venue’s old wooden tables with more comfortable booths.
“We’re changing it only for the better,” Mr. Ramroop said.
“What the hell happened to Boxers?” remains, however, a frequent customer inquiry, he said.
Though fright fans might disagree with Mr. Finley’s decision to leave well enough alone, many of his employees are just fine with it.
“This is a normal place,” said Lana, a rookie bartender slinging drinks at Oliver’s on Monday night. “I wanted to work at a normal place.”