Dorrian’s Last Stand

“What?! No, he would hustle people. He’d go in there and go home with guys for money.”

 

FROM THE START, Jack understood very well that the key to success was to re-create that poor man’s living room idea, just only with rich brats instead. Burgers were 50 cents, a beer was three dimes and a nickel, and a cab back to his home on 71st was three quarters, make it a dollar and the cabbie was happy.

“Yorkville had been a working-class German-Irish ghetto. There were three other German bars on the block. When you walked down 86th Street, you had the Berlin Bar, the Lorelei. The Bismarck. From Third Avenue to First Avenue you had 25 German restaurants. Then they used to have across the street the Gay Piano, the Blue Danube. In 1939 there was a guy up here who had a milk company, and these people were selling milk and they used to come over and collect money before the war started. Then over here you used to have a stand put out, and they would have guys come dressed as Nazis and they’d start talking about the Nazis. Then you had people who were from Europe who came over after the war; they were Jewish and they would come in and fight with these people. The cops would come in. Across the street there were two bars, little places that had Jägermeister behind the bar The would be a guy with a bottle of Jägermeister and some pickled pigs knuckles. Apartments were going $40, $50, $70, the rents. They were all cold-water flats. … What? Cold-water flats, you don’t know cold-water flats?

“There were 16 apartments upstairs and the most anyone was paying was I think $100. So it was all families and working folks.” Back then it was commonplace for bars to offer both hookers and gambling. Not Jack; he was in it for hell and high water.

Things started looking up when the Australian newspaper folks, many of whom lived in those cold-water flats upstairs, made Dorrian’s their clubhouse. There were newspaper offices up in the United Nations and then they had the Herald Tribune.

“So we had a big rugby, newspaper people here. But it was altogether different, the newspaper people, than they are today. They had some backbone. They more or less were men. Straight guys.” He looked me in the eyes. “They didn’t want to hurt you.” Well, no, they were part of the club.

“That’s how we started off and try to keep that going since that time. We like to know our customers, talk to our customers, and we like to give value for the money.”

That there is harder said than done. Not the keeping up with a good burger’s worth in gold. Give it a number: Ten bucks for the classic with cheese. But in the bar business, you’re only as strong as you are with your customers. It’s the making-the-water-seek-the-right-level that’s tricky.

It got trickier after the baby boom generation took over and young people start moving out here from places like California.

“What I mean by the right people is people who are not going to cause any trouble,” Jack said. “So if you have a group of college people in here, that’s what you’re going to get. The kids who are not college kids, they figure they’re lacking education, so they find some place else. So that’s what we get. If the girls are dressed accordingly, the other girls won’t come in because they think they’re not dressed like the other girls,” he explained.

Yeah, there’s a dress code. “It’s not tuxedos but it’s not tank tops. It’s not cutaway.”

I asked Jack how he felt about big, baggy pants. He gave me the stink eye. “What are you kidding?”

 

JACK DECIDED TO give Peter Smith, 27, a shot with his karaoke night in May ’08. He was born uptown but became downtown. “I feel like the hipsters have Black and White; the punk kids have Lit; and, yeah, Dorrian’s is the preppy bar,” Mr. Smith said. “But the great thing about the karaoke night is, I feel like it brought a lot of different types of people together.”

His band, the Shooting Gallery, would sometimes come up wearing their colors, leather jackets with peace symbols on the shoulders, and perform songs. To be clear, they are not a biker gang. Jack says he was never part of any gang. Mumble mumble. He went to All Saints High School and some local college. He was horribly dyslexic and had terrible grades. He flunked out of law school and decided to go into a legitimate business.

“We never had, to my knowledge, girls of the evening or gambling or drugs. We’ve always had people call and say they’re happy their sons are here because at least they know where they are.” (Even if he is in the cellar having a quickie with a floozy while his steady was waiting in line to use the bathroom, as one proud patron relayed.) “We make enough money that we try to keep it legit and we don’t need anything else.”

Parents are part of it. Socialite Annie Churchill looks back fondly on the day she got the shoulder tap. “One night, while I was home from boarding school for the weekend and staying with my father in the West Village, I went out to Dorrian’s and was told that my curfew was 1 a.m. Around 2 a.m., I got a tap on my shoulder from my friend Michael Dorrian, who said that I had a phone call. I got on the phone at the front desk by the window, and it was my father. He said, ‘Come home right now, or I’ll call the police.’”

Mr. Smith says that Dorrian’s has gotten serious about ID’s. Jack thinks the whole country’s going to hell and that nobody wants to be held accountable for anything, including their children.

There’s no shame in get tossed from the joint. “I think everyone I know has been a little too drunk at Dorrian’s,” said Mr. Johnson-Calderon. “It’s when the tykes are having trouble getting into the bar is when parents might want to avert the eyes.

“You’re standing on the door, and we have a guy on the door, and people open the door, and you’re standing there and they see and go, ‘Well, the guy’s drunk or he’s not dressed right’—or there’s seven or eight guys and he knows they’re going to be trouble,” Jack said. “So, the guy says, ‘We’re closing up,’ or, ‘We have too many guys in here.’ When you put too many bulls in a pen and there are no cows, they’re going to start going at each other. Am I right or wrong? So the guy on the door will say, ‘No, we’re closing up now. We have too many guys now.’ Then someone will say, ‘You’re a nigger.’ And you’re standing there with him. You feel worse for the guy than the black guy does. I mean, it’s really embarrassing.

“In the old days they used to just get out of here,” he continued. “Same with the police department. I remember in the old days, when we were in the neighborhood and there was any trouble, the cop’d hit you over the ears with the nightstick and you went home. You never told your mother. You told your mother that a cop did that there, and she hit you. You went to school and the teacher yelled at you. Your mother was horrified and she made you stay in. Today they go to the school and they say, ‘What are you hitting my children for? What are you punishing them for?’ It’s just ridiculous. They don’t want to take any responsibility.

“The clientele we have today is what we had. Nothing different except the names. It’s the same people that come along with the same problems.

“What are they? I didn’t graduate from school. I lost my job. I want to go to medical school. I want to be a lawyer. I want to be in the movies. Everything. I want to be a writer. It’s all the same thing. People come to New York, and if they don’t walk slowly after six months, they go back to where they came from. The hotshot goes back to where they come from.”

editorial@observer.com