Storied West Side Bar Stands Athwart Bank-Branch Boom

Like many torch-bearers of old family-owned businesses, Steve Chahalis hopes that his son, too, will one day work behind the same counter as he has—as a bartender, though, not a bank teller.

But in order to keep his clan’s longstanding P&G Café Bar from devolving into yet another ubiquitous Manhattan bank branch, Mr. Chahalis might have to start paying like one.

After months of uncertainty surrounding the future of the 65-year-old tavern and its iconic neon signage, the Chahalis family has been offered a new lease on their original digs at the corner of Amsterdam Avenue and West 73rd Street.

The offer comes at a hefty price, however—a 40 percent increase over the current rent, upping the bar’s monthly payment to above $20,000, according to Mr. Chahalis.

That’s a helluva lot of pints of Sam Adams to pour every 30-day cycle. But the 44-year-old fourth-generation suds-slinger said he’s willing to negotiate with the co-op board that owns P&G’s space.

The mere thought of apathetic A.T.M.’s standing in for the ancient tavern’s comradely vibe is simply too much for many of his most reliable patrons.

“I don’t even want to consider the possibility; I have enough problems in my life,” said Jon Friedman, a self-described 20-plus-year P&G regular, as he commiserated over several vodka drinks on Monday night. “Where do you go with your problems—Chase Manhattan Bank?”

Despite his initial sticker shock, Mr. Chahalis seemed thrilled to get any renewal offer from the landlord at all. “I’m confident that things are moving in the right direction,” he said.

Last year, the family was informed that they would not be welcome back after the bar’s existing lease expires on Dec. 31, 2008. The family was further offered $50,000 to vacate the premises even sooner. The proposed buyout, which the family rejected, came as three adjacent stores in the same building closed down.

Meanwhile, the co-op board landlord unveiled plans to standardize all of its storefronts.

The bar and its supporters promptly launched a media campaign. Signs screamed “SAVE THE P&G!!!!” at the bar, encouraging patrons to add their signatures to a petition in support of preserving the neighborhood watering hole. At press time, the lobbying effort had gathered some 4,500 names.

In September, the bar scored a significant victory when the Landmarks Preservation Commission ruled that the building couldn’t take down P&G’s famous neon sign without first seeking the city’s permission.

Weeks later, however, tensions between the bar and the landlord were further enflamed by the release of a letter from the co-op building’s board of directors, which charged that the bar was “constantly in arrears” with the rent. The letter further suggested connections between the tavern and the death of an alleged P&G patron struck by a car at 74th Street and Amsterdam Avenue.

In their own letter, taped up around the bar, the Chahalis family firmly denied both allegations: “We are open to any and all questions o[r] concerns about the bar, and we encourage you to come in or contact us.”

Amid all the rhetoric, rumors persisted that the building’s ownership was looking to replace P&G with a bank—a gratuitous proposition, given the existence of 10 banks already within three blocks of the bar.

“There was some interest from financial institutions,” said retail broker Stu Morden, who’s been marketing and negotiating leases for all of the co-op building’s ground-level retail. “There was also interest from a lot of other people, too. But we weren’t close to completing a deal with anybody.”

Mr. Morden suggested that the landlord’s earlier aversion to renewing the bar’s lease stemmed from the co-op board’s newfound anti-food-use policy. A former deli and pizzeria located next to the bar had created a considerable vermin problem for the building, he explained.

“Based on the experience of those two stores, they didn’t want to continue with any food operation, which extended over to P&G,” he said.

Of course, the bar doesn’t serve much in the way of food—just the occasional burger, fries and grilled cheese.

Mr. Morden cited some co-op owners’ “sentimentality” toward the historic tavern as influencing the building’s policy shift regarding P&G. “They polled the people in the building, and there was not a great objection [to the bar’s renewal],” he said.

Still, the landlord fully intends to get “what the market bears” for the space, he added.

And if the P&G Café Bar won’t pay, guess who will? Storied West Side Bar Stands  Athwart Bank-Branch Boom