For a liquor history buff, few excitements match the discovery of an old bar you never knew about. From the outside, The Bronx's The Punch Bowl looks like just another unlovely Irish pub. Inside, however, it's a feast for the eyes and the imagination. There's been a bar at this location since 1901—that is, since there's been a building at this location. And ample evidence of the joint's layered history lies inside. I recommend you take the 1 line all the way to the end, save one stop, and find out for yourself.
Here's the column:
A Beer At...The Punch Bowl
Things can get lost and forgotten in The Bronx.
Most of the extant pre-Prohibition bars in New York City have been pretty roundly celebrated. But The Punch Bowl in Kingsbridge, while only steps from the elevated 238th stop on the 1 line, has somehow snuck under the radar for 110 years. Its anonymity might have something to do with the aluminum siding and faux fieldstone that have covered over what was once a handsome, wood-paneling whistle stop, with swinging doors at the corner and stained glass along the sides.
Those stained-glass panels are now inside, hung and backlit high above the old wooden bar. The ceiling—comprised of brown-painted tin and timbers and cooled by four ceiling fans of various ages, sizes and speeds—is high and can accommodate such decorative touches. (The ceiling of old bars are always high, which I think is part of what makes their so welcoming.) Unlike McSorley's or the Old Town Bar, whose ancient interiors are basically frozen in amber, The Punch Bowl design is a jumble of eras. Yes, there's a pool table, a juke box, and the usual mirrored advertisements for various beers; and there are framed and signed jerseys from both the Yankees and the Mets. But above the restroom doors are stuffed deer and boar heads. The wood-framed, round clock has a yellow face and looks prewar. Bolted to the wall are a couple of nut vending machines of a sort I haven't seen in years. The ceramic floor is circa 1901. And a wooden statue of a soused German in lederhosen bids you adieu at the door as you leave. As an impromptu collage of 20th century artifacts, it's quite wonderful.
The business began as a German pilsner hall, complete with back entrance (still there) and beer garden (gone). It was called Buckeye's, and very likely poured beer by a particular local brewery. During Prohibition, it masqueraded as an ice cream parlor. When it reopened, it was as an Irish pub. It was renamed The Punch Bowl in the 1960s and was taken over by the Barry family in 1979.
The hulking, bald bartender pulls a good beer from eight different drafts. The owner walks around in a robin's-egg-blue bowling shirt and says hello to the customers, all of whom he knows. The clientele is friendly and working class—not a tie in the bunch. They take their darts seriously. A cubby hole opposite the bar is reserved for throwing the tiny missiles, and is as brightly lit as a photo studio. A neon beer sign in the corner is covered with a curtain so that no bullseyes get lost in the sun. Though surrounded by remnants of a century's worth of bar life, and the old IRT rumbled outside, as it has for all but seven years of the tavern's life, the crowd was very much alive and in the moment. I've rarely seen the years melt together as seamlessly as they do at The Punch Bowl.