Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Beer at...Overlook Lounge

I have always regretted not having had the chance to drink at Costello's, the Third Avenue saloon made famous by New Yorker writer John McNulty, and frequented by every writer in the New Yorker stable. I know I would have adored it. I had thought the place was gone forever, every bit of it, but a visit to the Overlook Lounge showed me that a very slender connection to the Costello era yet exists. I don't think anyone at The New Yorker, however, then or now, would choose the Overlook as their watering hole. It's a fine place for a beer or a game or a burger. But not much more.

Here's my Eater "A Beer At..." column:

A Beer At...Overlook Lounge

How quickly the character drains from things in 21st-century New York.

I'd passed by the Overlook Lounge on E. 44th Street, near Third Avenue, many times over the years. And, aside from wondering at the slightly unusual name, I thought it a typical tavern. I did not know until walking inside that this was the last vestige of what was once one of the most storied saloons in New York history: Costello's, haunt in the 1940s and '50s of New Yorker writers such as James Thurber, who covered its wall with his iconic cartoons in order to pay off a bar tab, and John McNulty, who immortalized its regulars in innumerable stories for the magazine.

Costello's was at Third and 44th. It's long gone, torn down in the early '70s to make way for a skyscraper. Tim Costello, Jr., son of one of the owners, moved east to 225 E. 44th. The Thurber drawings had vanished (no one knows what became of them), so Tim Jr. invited Daily News cartoonist Bill Gallo and his pals at the National Cartoonist Society to cover the back right wall with their doodles. The second Costello's closed in 1990; the space reopened as the Turtle Bay Cafe. Then that shuttered, making way for the Overlook, which, for better or worse, the owners named after that mountain lodge where Jack Nicholson goes crazy in "The Shining."

In a well-meaning gesture to honor the address' history, the Overlook owners in 2005 asked Bill Gallo, then in his 80s, and his buds to return and cover the left hand side of the bar with illustrations. They did. The right wall is still the winner, though. It takes you right back in time. There's Steve Canyon, with his rock-solid jaw. Fred Flintstone, Bullwinkle and, for God's sake, Dondi. Also, forgotten cartoon figures like Boner from Mort Walker's "Boner's Ark" strip. A caricature of W.C. Fields toasts the Bicentennial with a double-necked martini glass. Another caricature captures erstwhile mayor Abe Beame. (I wonder how many of the patrons know who Beame was anymore.) Suffusing all is a bygone, hilariously sexist point of view, with plenty of willing and dim buxom women. One wonders, "If Abe Lincoln only had four scores in seven years, he must not have been much of a ladie's man."

The newer mural, on the left, has its charms—many more New Yorker cartoonists than in 1975, and second appearances of Hägar the Horrible and the Lockhorns and, for some reason, Nixon. But each character is made to utter some advertisement for the bar, like "Here I am at the Overlook!" They're all pitchmen now. Either way—right wall or left wall—none of it is Thurber caliber. The murals feel like wan attempts to recapture a more glorious artistic past.

Not that anyone really pays much attention to the drawings. (How could they with a small TV nestled in every booth, keeping you distracted?) Most of the crowd keeps to the bar up front. The ceiling is covered with hundreds of Christmas ornaments to keep up "an every day is Mardi Gras" atmosphere, according to the bartender. The menu heralds the "best pommes frites in the city." There's a sign taped to a busted juke box saying "No more dollars. You like lose it." The bar offers darts and a roof deck. There's karaoke on Tuesdays and a picture of what appear to be Osmond and Rachel Ray singing at the Overlook.

It's an OK bar, I guess. They do a brisk trade, obviously. But it just seems like such a missed opportunity, like a museum that has the Venus de Milo in the back, but gives prides of place to the museum director's salt and pepper shaker collection. Maybe it's because I've been reading a lot of McNulty lately, but scanning the history of Costello's on the back of the menu only makes me realize what's lost, not appreciate what's there. A bar that can trace its lineage to writers like Hemingway and O'Hara, but chooses to paper its walls with 20 flat panel TVs and two 9 x 9 projection screens just depresses me. But, then again, who knows? Maybe they are the best pommes frites in New York.
— Robert Simonson

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