Saturday, May 8, 2010

A Beer At...O'Hanlon's Bar

This week's Eater column:

A Beer At...O'Hanlon's Bar
A scarecrow of a man in a crumpled bucket hat shuffles into O'Hanlon's Bar on 31st Street in Astoria, past the wooden phone booth and the shelving unit that used to hold phone directories for the Manhattan, Brooklyn and Nassau County, but is now empty, since people don't use phone books anymore. He settles back onto his stool, his beer waiting in front of him. It's noon. "Lot of food out there," he says. Food for Al Pacino, Channing Tatum and Katie Holmes. They're making a film in the area. Pacino plays a world-weary detective. Trailers and caterers are parked just outside the 71-year-old tavern. There's word that a scene may be shot inside the bar, but no one knows for sure.

"Everyone on the film likes this place," says the friendly blonde woman behind the bar. "They look around and say 'This is Astoria? I'd live here!'"
"Lots of wires and cords on the sidewalk," adds a beefier barfly. "Made for a good lawsuit." A third man with a neat moustache, nursing a brandy, says nothing. He's fallen asleep sitting up. Some of these guys may have been the subjects of the cocktail napkin caricatures that are taped to the wall and the mirror behind the bar. They're pretty good, those drawings. Each one has a name next to it.
The bar is owned by Jim O'Hanlon, great-grandson of the Irishman who founded the place. By the look of the wooden Venetian blinds and exit light—round and red as Rudolph's nose—the place hasn't changed much since then. But check out the blown-up, black-and-white photograph in the back room, hung above the cloth banquettes and the small tables, and you'll adjust that opinion. Its a 1940s shot, and the joint is jumping, men in fedoras and women in dresses two deep at the brass rail, their faces wreathed in joy. Three dapper bartenders in bowties and long white aprons are behind the bar servicing the throng. It's a classic picture, just the way you imagine saloons being in mid-20th-century New York. The current bartender, who's seen the picture plenty of times, looks at it with new eyes. "I don't know how they fit three guys back here," she says.
Mr. O'Hanlon may be the nostalgic type. A keen eye picks out an illuminated ad for Schenley's whiskey in the old photograph. (Schenley's, once a common brand, had their headquarters in the Empire State building.) Look behind the bar today and you will see, there among the newer bottles, an old vessel of Schenley's with an aged, peeling label. It's full and untouched. Held back from the postwar crowds? Or bought on eBay for sentiment's sake? Maybe they're crack it open if Pacino stops by.
Tatum? Not so much.
—Robert Simonson

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