Art Deco baubles aren’t the only ’20s staple roaring back right now. David Granger celebrates the triumphant return of Manhattan’s most famous speakeasy.
You walk no more than 30 yards west of Seventh Avenue on Barrow Street in Manhattan and you are suddenly somewhere else. You are removed from the relentless striving that characterizes this moment in New York. For me, 30 yards down Barrow, it’s the mid-’80s. The city was still reeling from ’70s governmental apathy, Times Square was still an armpit, Central Park after dark was a death wish, and the West Village was a respite: a bit dowdy but quiet and lovely, a maze of winding streets through which you wandered happily until you found your way out.
Occasionally, I would guide my visitors from out of town in that direction and when we happened onto Barrow, near the corner of Bedford—if it was afternoon or evening—I’d lead them into a little courtyard, the mere entry into which seemed transgressive, as though we were intruding on someone’s home at dinnertime. Then through a darkened doorway and, magic, we were in a bar. An old bar. Kind of a dump but well loved: Chumley’s. No matter how I mangled the legend (a speakeasy; Ernest Hemingway; Robert Lowell; the expression eighty-sixed; Dylan—was it Bob or Thomas?), my audience was charmed. We’d down a beer or two (never a meal; it was the ’80s and we were poor) and then it was up a step, through the dining room, and (this was the coup de grâce) out the escape hatch (remember, it began life as a speakeasy) onto Bedford Street, around the corner from where we’d entered.
Chumley’s went away for a while. A long while. The building nearly fell down and the bar closed. Its archivist, a man named Jim DiPaola, can tell you the whole story now that Chumley’s is back. He’s there most nights. The entrance on Barrow is gone, so everyone is required to enter through what I considered the exit, and the place is now a proper restaurant. The walls are still covered with the jackets of books penned by its long-ago denizens, along with photos of legendary patrons. Chumley’s history is its own, but it’s a restaurant you’ve been to before—a smaller Polo Bar/Waverly Inn/ Clocktower—with much better food. Delicious food, reimagined club/pub food. I and the former NYPD detective who accompanied me had the best table in the house, a little alcove for two between the dining room and the bar. There’s a story about this table too, but our third drink stole it from our memory. Police! I’d asked him for cop dirt on the place, but all his investigation revealed was that David Letterman used to buy the place out as a thank-you to his writing staff.
Letterman’s gone. But if you keep to the side streets, the Village is still the Village. And Chumley’s, or something like it, reminds us that writers were once gods, that drinking was once illegal, and that a good story can live forever, if someone takes the care to retell it.
Styled by Kareem Rashed // Prop styling by Jocelyne Beaudoin