It sits triumphantly, even defiantly, in a nonawe-inspiring valley of skyscrapers and a handful of to-the-trade designer showrooms on 55th Street and Third Avenue. Landmark status was secured five years ago when a group of investors, including the actor Timothy Hutton, rescued P. J. Clarke's from bankruptcy and certain oblivion. To be honest, it's an unremarkable two-story redbrick building. Squat, I believe, is how one would describe the "design" so shockingly at odds with its environs. The M101 bus slows, hisses, and finally stops not far from where the infamous El—whose tracks never touched the ground—once roamed. This is no trendy TriBeCa neighborhood or romantic West Village treelined street, and there is not, with all due respect to the hotshots who have clamored (and still do) for a table, a whiff of chic about it. In the end P. J. Clarke's has always been just a Midtown burger joint with a bar that rivaled Grand Central at rush hour. It just so happened that along the way, as Lisa Robinson wrote in a piece called "Late Night Landmark P. J. Clarke's Lives On" in Vanity Fair, Buddy Holly proposed marriage here, Johnny Mercer scribbled out the lyrics to "One for My Baby" at the bar, and Billy Wilder chose it as the setting for Ray Milland's case of the DTs in The Lost Weekend. Just about every famous somebody on earth, from Marilyn Monroe to Rex Stout, has passed through these doors. I like to imagine the lack of excitement from the guys at the bar when Ari and Jackie would duck into one of Clarke's two little enclaves off to the side for a dozen oysters or maybe a cup of chili. Not that chic doesn't happen: A new movie about Truman Capote called Infamous (coming out next month from Killer Films) even re-creates its own version of Clarke's for a couple of scenes in which Capote and his chum Harper Lee confer over a drink at the bar.
P. J. Clarke's is what a lot of us came to New York looking for. "What" might be different for everyone, but in essence it's about finding some idealized, more noble, but, alas, vanished New York. For me that vision was bathed in the afterglow of a Cheever story set on the way home from work in a city where it had just started to snow, where everyone still wore a hat and the river light was enough to make you cry. It was the beginnings of just such a snowstorm that sent me—I can't even remember how many years ago—inside the joint where the jukebox plays the kind of music that makes a 14-year- old roll his eyes, where the menu never changes (though they might want to rethink the crab cakes), where the bar's always packed and a pretty dark-haired girl with big brown eyes keeps vigil over her spreadsheet to see who's coming when. God knows how many cheeseburgers, onion strings, and crackling cold wedges of iceberg and blue cheese dressing with bacon ("No scallions, please") have been ordered. You see, P. J. Clarke's is the last man standing. In an age when burgers are stuffed with foie gras and truffles and even '21' serves one that costs almost as much as a Brooks Brothers tie, P. J. Clarke's still knows the value of a human-size burger covered in ched- dar and a few crisp strips of bacon ($10). All who come here think of P. J. Clarke's as their place—my own son has left his own willfully permanent mark on the place, but I won't say where.
A few years back, the guys who run Clarke's added an upstairs room. It's called the Sidecar and to be sure it's quieter, bigger, and the menu's a bit fancier. It has its own private entrance and even its own membership card. But myself, I'm fine with that bacon cheeseburger and iceberg salad downstairs where I've always had it. At 915 Third Ave.; 212-317-1616.