One reason I enjoy doing the "A Beer At..." column is that it causing me to enter historic bars that I didn't know existed. Certainly, I knew Milano's on Houston was there. I walked by it a million times. I did not know it had been a bar since 1880 and had the architecture to prove it.
A Beer At....Milano's
Milano's is a sliver of a bar wedged into one of the last blocks on Houston Street that looks like New York. Whole Foods is to the east, a BP gas station to the west. The enormous Amsterdam Billiards is across the street. Milano's is a crack of darkness in their modern, roomy, shiny world of clean convenience.
Some accounts have hard liquor being sold at this address in the 1880s, with Prohibition barely an annoying hiccup in that boozy history. I'd bet on it. The tin ceiling's high enough to accommodate a trapeze act, and strong enough to support a prehistoric air-conditioning unit. The tile floor has been worn down by eight million sets of shoes. Beer ads from each of the last five decades line the walls. And the small bathrooms in the back bespeak of a time when only men navigated the joint's narrow confines. They leave little to the imagination, swinging saloon doors being the only thing interrupting a drinker's view of the goings-on within.
The name is Italian, but it's clear enough the Irish have long had a hold on the place's soul. A poster for "Michael Collins" hangs above the bar. Guinness and Smithwick are on tap. And, more strangely, copies of Richard Avedon's 1993 New Yorker photo study of surviving members of the Kennedy administration can be found all over the place. Ornery Pierre Salinger, slipped among the countless Polaroids, stares out, wondering how a man with his resume ended up in a dive on E. Houston.
The bartender, a blonde woman big enough to be a left wing with the Rangers, is efficient, alert and all-business. Noticing your thirsty maw, she points a finger and barks "Yes?!" (Best to approach the bar with your order in mind.) There was another former bartender on hand on a recent night, but he is now simply a patron. Diminutive and dressed in a threadbare jacket, bow tie and cap, he's keeping up appearances. Learning of his long experience, I asked him the origins of a peculiar stone sculpture. Rectangular and as intricately carved like a Pictish artifact, it's propped against the right wall near the back. But he gaped at the slab like he'd never laid eyes on it in his life. "After my time," he said, and returned to his stool.
The blonde bartender knew more. She told me that the stone was carved by a local artist in honor of a former Milano's customer, now deceased. I may have misheard, but I think she said the bygone barfly's name was Gizmo.