The West Village’s White Horse Tavern is one of those local places you take for granted because it was ALWAYS there. I lived in the neighborhood for some 13 years until 2016, but when I first arrived in 1980, the apartment I stayed in was around the corner. At the time, I was still a meat-eater and a burger, fries and a beer there, at one of the outdoor tables, was a right-of-passage that I had, but I was unaware of. Possibly until now.
The White Horse just closed and a former waitress there and writer, Kelly Dobkin, wrote an interesting piece for New York magazine’s food website, Grub Street, which sums up what’s been happening in NYC of late. But it’s been going on since the Dutch purchased Manhattan in 1626 from the Lenape Indians for 60 guilders. Change.
Read what Dobkin writes,
“I was 24 years old the first time I walked into the White Horse Tavern. I’d decided to become a writer, and as the cliché dictated, I needed a waitressing job. A friend worked at the bar and offered to get me a few shifts during the summer. The pay was solid, and the hours were excellent, but what I would later come to realize was that it was also the Platonic ideal of a New York pub, and a legendary neighborhood’s beating heart. Now, it may never again be the same.
Jim Munson, from Rockaway, Queens, was the boss. He co-owned the bar with the Brennan family, who originally purchased it in the late ’60s. Eddie Brennan and Jimmy’s father, Jim Sr., were longshoremen together. Jimmy, as we called him, was always good to us. He was old-school, and his very presence commanded respect.
Recently, he grew tired of running the bar and decided to sell, which he did earlier this year. You’ve probably read about the new landlord, Steve Croman, and the bar’s new proprietor, restaurateur Eytan Sugarman, who owns Times Square’s ritzy Hunt & Fish Club and has been under fire by locals about his plans to revamp the Horse. At a recent community board meeting, he pledged that he had
‘No intention of making any dramatic changes.‘
promising to keep the bar mostly as it is, but what else can you say when you take over such a beloved institution?
Maybe he won’t change it, or maybe he’ll turn it into a place that serves $19 bespoke cocktails and $85 seafood towers. Nobody seems to really know, but the bar officially closed this week and the word either way is that Sugarman has no plans to employ any of the existing kitchen or service staff. That doesn’t feel like a sign that he’s dedicated to preserving the Horse’s legacy, and the regulars who held a rally and an Irish wake for the Horse earlier this year don’t seem to trust Sugarman, either.
In New York City, the only assurance we have is that everything will get more expensive and less authentic over time. And we have a culture that has become increasingly obsessed with improvement and optimization, coupled with an ongoing decimation of communal spaces. The White Horse Tavern was never a pinnacle of food, drink, or service. Instead, it was a ramshackle place for regular folks (and, when I worked there, the occasional Gossip Girl actor). But there’s value in the idea of leaving things as they are. Not everything needs to be perfected. Not everything needs to be Instagrammable. Just knowing the old White Horse was there meant something to me, and to everyone who loved it. Some things just simply can, and should, stay the same.”
Yes. What she said.
But, like it or not, it’s NYC, and there are harsh realities with buying and running a restaurant there. More harsh than most places, with the exception of London. There are vacant storefronts all over the city and the closings and losses of beloved places are piling up, year after year.
Anything set to change in the city, immediately has opposition, which is good, but not if you want to change something.
But institutions and landmarks, like the Ziegfield Theater which was one of the last big movie palaces that THE place to see a movie that was an event, are now gone. Along with the Roseland Ballroom and countless other places, the city swallows them up in the name of progress and capitalism.
Demolishing the old Penn Station still makes me sad at the thought and it’s the most dramatic example of losing something great and replacing it with something truly awful. They wanted to do the same to Grand Central Station, but Jackie O and others fought and won. In the glitzy 80s, Trump gutted covered the old Commodore Hotel next door and covered it in mirrors and tore down the beautiful dept. store Bonwit Teller on Fifth Ave to build the now infamous Trump Tower. (In NYC, we’ve had Trump’s m.o. for DECADES and tried to warn the country. If he keeps up what he’s been doing to the country, they’ll be fracking Yosemite and chopping down the Giant Redwoods.)
Go to the underground Penn Station NOW and then look at old photos, below, of what once was, and what now sits on the site and tell me THAT was progress.
I see both sides. Here’s a perfect example of ugly vs beautiful, tradition vs progress. See the beautiful marble staircase at the entrance of Penn Station? They added an escalator at some point to people move, and I think, hideous. Use the stairs! What if you’re 80? It’s hard to see, but it doesn’t seem to have wheel-chair access, so, you might as well have a sign outside that says,
“Disabled? Go Away!”
The physically handicapped have the right to enter the building same as anyone, but they didn’t in 1920, when it was built. Progress.
At the same time, in an ever-changing world, it’s nice to preserve some of the past. If “they” ever decide to remodel Radio City Music Hall or sell off chunks of Central Park to build 150-story apartment buildings, I say, that’s the end. But they might. And it won’t be.
(Photos, Wikimedia Commons; via Grub Street)