A cultural and architectural holdout, P.J. Clarke’s has soldiered on through the Depression, Prohibition, two World Wars, and an onslaught of high-rises and office towers. It has had five owners in its history. None of them liked change.
Humble Beginnings: 1868 – 1912
While much of P.J. Clarke’s history has been extraordinarily preserved, the earliest days of the legendary bar are somewhat murky. What is known is that the little red brick building was constructed in 1868 for unstated purposes on a squalid patch of land labeled in city records simply as “squatters’ shacks.” Sometime in 1884, the building was converted to a watering hole by one “Mr. Jennings,” who saw an opportunity to serve the many Irish laborers travelling to and from their jobs at the neighborhood’s slaughterhouses, breweries, manufactories, tanneries, and construction sites.
Ever since Sinatra claimed his seat at Table #20, celebrities from Jackie O to Nat King Cole have found a home at P.J. Clarke’s.
P.J. Clarke’s didn’t gain its current name until another Irish immigrant, Mr. Patrick Joseph “Paddy” Clarke, arrived in the neighborhood around 1902 as the newly hired bartender under the saloon’s second owner, the Englishman “Mr. Duneen.” (What became of the first owner, Mr. Jennings, or when exactly the bar transferred ownership to Mr. Duneen is unknown. As is, for that matter, either Mr. Jennings’ or Mr. Duneen’s first names.) An industrious and apparently thrifty lad, Paddy tended bar and more or less ran the saloon for ten years before saving enough to purchase it outright from Mr. Duneen in 1912.
The Makings of a Legend: 1912 – 1948
All around the little red brick bar, momentous changes began taking place in the neighborhood. Slaughterhouses were relocated to the outer boroughs. Luxury apartments were built along Avenue A. Tenements were razed to clear space for middle-class apartments. And a few blocks west, the massive Rockefeller Plaza was constructed, bringing with it a wave of office workers, publishers, news reporters, and media moguls.
In the face of this cultural and economic upheaval, P.J.’s remained stubbornly, defiantly, and proudly the same. Despite this – or more likely because of it – the bar thrived. Even Prohibition produced barely a hiccup, as P.J.’s used its discreet “wives’ window” (where women and children would come to fill pails of beer, women being prohibited from entering the bar until the '60s) to screen customers and give neighborly handouts to cops on the local beat.
A Century of Good Times
|1868||The brick building that would become P.J. Clarke’s is constructed on 55th Street and Third Avenue in New York, replacing an area referred to in city records only as “squatters’ shacks.”|
|1884||Mr. Jennings converts the building into a watering hole to cater to the Irish immigrant laborers who rode the newly constructed Third Avenue El to their workplaces in the tanneries, breweries, and construction sites in the area.|
|1902||Patrick J. Clarke arrives from Ireland by boat and is hired as a bartender by Englishman Mr. Duneen, the saloon’s owner.|
|1912||P.J. Clarke’s becomes “P.J. Clarke’s” when Mr. Duneen returns to his native England in search of a “proper wife” and sells the bar to Patrick J. Clarke.|
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Sometime in the 1940s, P.J.’s – already a local institution – was discovered by the celebrity set. A fresh-faced Frank Sinatra ended many of his nights at table #20. Singer Johnny Mercer penned “One for My Baby” on a napkin while sitting at the antique mahogany bar. Charles Jackson, writer of the classic book The Lost Weekend, was a regular, and the bar scenes from Academy Award-winning movie adaptation were shot there. And so the legend grew.
Standing Tall Among Giants: 1948 – 2000
Patrick Joseph and his family ran P.J. Clarke’s until 1948, at which point it was sold to their upstairs neighbors the Lavezzos – antique dealers and restorers who ran their business out of the second floor. At the time, the Lavezzos also bought the red brick building itself for the princely sum of $19,000 – a decision that would prove critical with the coming skyscraper boom of the 1950s.
When the noisy, dilapidated Third Avenue El was torn down in 1955, the world around P.J. Clarke’s changed yet again. Real estate prices took off. Skyrocketing rents forced out small businesses. And skyscrapers jumped up all around the little brick building. Despite intense pressure from developers and the obvious lure of financial riches, the Lavezzos refused to sell. Finally, in 1967, the family negotiated a 99-year lease with a developer, securing the future of the bar. In the words of The New York Times, it was “David who prevailed over Goliath.”
Over the next decades, the city continued to change around P.J.’s, and P.J.’s continued to stay exactly the same, serving a loyal mix of locals, laborers, office workers, and celebrities. Buddy Holly proposed to his wife there. Elizabeth Taylor loved to stop by late. Richard Harris was known for his promethean appetite for double vodkas. Jackie Kennedy would stop by with her young son, John Jr. And Nat King Cole declared the cheeseburgers to be “The Cadillac of Burgers,” establishing the name of what would become P.J. Clarke’s signature dish.
In the early 2000s, P.J. Clarke’s, along with the rest of the city, suffered with the economic downturn. After a period of uncertainty, it was purchased in 2002 by Arnold Penner, restaurateur Philip Scotti, and a group of investors, including George Steinbrenner and Timothy Hutton. Of course, the regulars were understandably nervous about what a change in ownership might bring and their fears seemed confirmed when it was closed suddenly for “renovations.” But when the bar reopened, they found that aside from a much-needed cleaning and improvements to the building’s infrastructure, everything was exactly as it was before, down to the very last detail. At the grand reopening, the patrons lined up around the block, and stood four-deep at the mahogany bar.
P.J. Clarke’s was back. Better than ever. And the same as it ever was.