Friday, July 2, 2010

A Beer At...Neir's

It was a pleasure to make the hour-long subway trek all the way out to Woodhaven, Queens, just to visit Neir's, which may be the oldest bar in the five boroughs. 1829 was the year it opened up for business. Walking in you get a good idea was saloon-going must have been like back then: nondescript frontage, corner entrance, tin-ceilings, mahogany bar up front, side entrance, raised area in back holding a few tables for sitting and eating, side room beyond that. McSorley's and Pete's and P.J. Clarke's are old bars which have, over time, taken on the pose of an "old bar." (Nothing against them; they're great.) But Neir's is really an old bar.

A Beer At...Neir's
Neir's is far. If you don't live in Woodhaven, Queens—where it is the only place of business on the corner of 78th Street and 88th Avenue aside from a Karate studio—you have to catch the J train all the way out to the 75th Street to get there. Bank on an hour of travel if you live in Brooklyn or Manhattan.
So why go? Because Neir's may very well be the oldest bar in New York City. It was founded in 1829 as the Old Blue Pump House, making is a good 25 older than McSorley's Ale House, the Manhattan saloon that forever touts the "oldest" title. Of course, Woodhaven—called Woodville in the 1820s—wasn't a part of NYC back then, so its claim probably wouldn't hold up in court. But the point is: it's old. And it just reopened after a eight-month renovation.

Neir's doesn't look like a bar. Or, rather, it looks like the kind of bar can still find in certain neighborhoods of New Orleans. It's anonymous looking, nestled among aluminum-siding-clad homes a couple blocks away from the busy commercial strip of Jamaica Avenue. The bar is inside a simple, brown, two-story, clapboard building, the kind that has its front door on the corner, set at a diagonal, and bisected by a metal pillar. The place looks like someone's house and, until the renovation, had no signage whatsoever.
Neir's has its various claims to fame. It's said that Mae West, who was raised in the area, first performed here, and that Fred Trump, Donald's father and a Woodhaven native, drank here. And a few iconic scenes from "Goodfellas" were filmed in the bar. (There are pictures of West and the Scorcese film on the walls, as well as many old, black-and-white photos of the joint back in the day.) But somehow Neir's has kept a pretty low profile over the decades, even as it went through a variety of owners and names, including the The Old Abbey, and the Union Course Tavern, after the Union Course racetrack that used to be right across the street. (One can only imagine the sort of roguish gambling men who frequented the bar in the 19th century). The name that has stuck, however, is the one given to it in 1898 by a stingy old German saloonkeeper named Louis Neir.
For all it's history, Neir's the opposite of precious. Sure, it has beautiful pressed-tin walls and ceilings (the only thing that prevented the building from burning down a long time ago, they say), and a gorgeous mahogany bar. There are tea tables in the back, and a couple leather chairs around a restored fireplace. But this is basically a neighborhood bar, with a charmingly motley crew of regulars who spend as much time on the sidewalk outside as they do holding up the bar. A side door is always open and used frequently. The back bar is adequately stocked, but don't expect anything fancy here. And that's probably as it should be. However, if your beer tastes especially cold, it may have something to do with the ancient tap system, in which a range of coils are cooled by ice.
On a recent afternoon, an African-American man leaned heavily at the corner of the bar and gladly received a cranberry and vodka from Melanie Bigan, the bar's manager, who was wearing the pink t-shirt and crushed pink cowboy hat. "It's been a hard day at the office," he sighed with a smile. Turned out he had done much of the restoration work in the bar, including scouring away the old chipping paint from the tin. He's now thinking about beginning work on the exterior, which is paneled in cedar.
The floor-to-ceiling wooden hutch opposite of the bar is obviously original. It has settled with the building over the years, and is collapsing into itself, taking on the posture of a bent old man. Bigan said the owner had thought of ripping it out, but she convinced him to keep it. Part of her reasoning was sentimental; the cabinet has character and is filled with momentos brought in by patrons. But she was also being practical.
"I thought if they took it out," she said, "the whole building would fall down."
—Robert Simonson

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