A few weeks ago, my band was fortunate enough to be asked to play music in Tompkins Square Park. The four of us arrived punctually (an impressive feat for an old-school punk rock band like ours).
The sun was blazing but standing in the shade brought sound respite. Having consumed copious caffeinated beverages in transit, I headed for where I knew the public restrooms were located.
The men’s room was locked. A nearby restroom was marked for use only by children. It was also locked. Park workers admonished men looking to use the boys’ restroom, and referred people to the closed men’s room even after being told it was locked. A Parks Department employee told me to use bathrooms at a nearby Starbucks or 7 Eleven, and acted as if she were doing me a favor.
Nearby on Ave. A and 9th Street, there was not a Starbucks or 7 Eleven in sight. Doc Holliday’s was open though.
Even though I long ago left the drinking life, I had the good fortune to drink at many of New York’s most excellent bars before I did. Doc Holiday’s is one of the East Village’s surviving dive bars that did not sell out or lose its character, and has stayed the same quality dive bar that it was meant to be.
As the name implies, Doc Holliday’s could be called a country bar. While by that measure it could easily be lumped in with other “country” bars such as the now-defunct Hogs & Heifers, it’s a bit more subdued and nowhere near the same kind of tourist mecca. It may be a far cry from where David Allen Coe would drink (if anyone knows where David Allen Coe goes to drink when he’s in New York, please tell me), but it’s the closest thing to a country dive bar surviving in the city today.
When a cheesy movie came out about rival bar Coyote Ugly in 2000, Doc Holliday’s celebrated the fact that its name was not associated with such a flop. They had several drink specials and posted scathing movie reviews of Coyote Ugly on the walls of the bar.
For a while when I worked in SoHo, I would bring coworkers to Doc Holliday’s for beer—after the after-work beers we had at work, of course, and it never disappointed me then. I would be one of the last of my party to depart, stepping strongly buzzed into the bright twilight of a New York Friday night, ready to conquer the world some more.
About 10 years later, when I decided to leave the bogus “secret restaurant” located in Crif Dogs rather than take off my hat, I went to Doc Holliday’s where friends were waiting. Three boroughs and many, many drinks later, I made it through that night with few memories but few regrets.
But now I was returning to Doc Holliday’s as someone gone from the drinking life nearly a decade, a frustrated park goer unable to find a decent bathroom. Would I be welcome back to this hallowed place where I had spent so much quality time in the past?
The bartender was chatting with three people at the bar and the place was otherwise empty. There was no crowd to blend into if I pretended to be a customer. She looked to me, expecting me to order a drink. I decided to come clean and admit I was there just to go to the bathroom. I explained my situation to the bartender. Could I use their bathroom?
The bartender told me yes and thanked me for asking. I walked back to where the bathrooms were to find that Doc’s had done some remodeling and the restrooms were not in a state of filthy disrepair. By dive bar standards the new men’s room was pretty luxurious. I left a five-dollar bill on the bar in my way out and got a friendly smile.
I returned throughout the day and was warmly greeted. It was good to be welcome and enjoy the dive bar scene again. Even removed from the drinking life, our bars are cultural markers that can offer a guide to the state of society. Doc Holliday’s confirms there are some pockets of righteous goodness left in our city.
The secret to a good bar has nothing to do with what beers are on tap or what its décor looks like. The only valid measure of a bar is its character, it supersedes all other measures. I’ve been in bars that reeked of piss and fruit flies that were a thousand times better than the cleanest, sleekest pre-fabricated gastropub.
Dive bars are often the best bars to visit. One of the finest pubs in the recent history of New York was the Village Idiot, which closed its doors in 2004 and had the most eclectic crowd ever. My first visit there a 6-foot-plus transvestite played pool with some tipsy yuppies while construction workers drank at the bar. Mars Bar had bathrooms that were even filthier than CBGB’s bathrooms, which were legendary for their filth. But it didn’t matter. Mars Bar and Village Idiot brought some of the most interesting varieties of people to drink together.
Of course there’s a certain hip cache to the dive bar now, but you can tell which bars are faking it and which bars aren’t. I like to think I’ve visited enough bars to be able to tell the difference without too much effort, but I’ve been out of the drinking game for more than five years now and my visits to bars are few and far between.
And New York City has lost some of its best dive bars. There are a few though that are keeping things alive. Nancy Whiskey, Rudy’s and The Patriot are all the real thing: good dive bars with real character.
But great New York bars are not restricted to the five boroughs, and one of the finest bars ever recently hosted its last hurrah.
The Alumni Club just outside the city limits in New Hyde Park, New York is a place I discovered through my wife, who was a long-time regular and used to tend bar there. It sat among a row of storefronts and its location was generally unremarkable. You needed a car to get there though theoretically you could take a Nassau County bus.
The Alumni Club was a bar that was both eclectic in its clientele and without pretension. While it had its population of longtime regulars, no strangers were ever made to feel unwelcome. I don’t even drink and I was welcome there. I would even bring in large beverages from the 7-Eleven across the street and no one would mind. I’d always ask the bartender if he or she wanted anything. I’m convinced the bar lost no money on my account; my wife could drink enough for both of us.
There was almost always some offering of free food and the owner or bartender encouraged visitors to eat. Once I went there to catch the end of the Georgia Bulldogs game and found they were in the midst of a “casino night” themed evening. The bar had some system worked out where they weren’t technically gambling there but I wasn’t sure how it worked and I figured the less I knew the better.
But the best part about the Alumni Club was the character and good atmosphere. It was not in a trendy part of the city and had nothing to prove. People who went there were working people who wanted to drink, not people who wanted to be seen drinking.
Needless to say a bar of this caliber of excellence tends to have many loyal patrons and when the bar announced it was going to be shutting its doors, employees and patrons alike began planning the farewell party.
The last Saturday this May was the Alumni Club’s big blowout party that included a lot of food and copious amounts of alcohol. T-shirts made for the event read, “We drank it dry.” Patrons lived up to the boast: when bartenders showed up for work the next day they found that the place had run out of beer.
This week Alumni Club will close its doors for good. Guests and employees will remember their alma mater with pride.