Editor’s Note: Obamacare trudges on and Harry Reid has detonated the nuclear option. What better time for a drink? Pull up a bar stool and listen as the late Christopher Hitchens explains — as he did in our May 2001 issue, using his favorite New York City establishment — just the kind of place required to properly enjoy one.
What does one seek in a place of refreshment? Or what qualities, once found, make one think of a bar as in some way one’s own? I would list in no special order the following features. The place should be open early and late and in between. In line with this, it should be a setting of moods: a slow start in the mid-morning, a bit of a bulge around lunchtime, a languorous afternoon and then a gradual quickening of pace after 6 p.m., culminating in a commitment to some sort of late-night or after-dinner or post-theater crowd. (It’s not absolutely necessary to experience all of these things in the same 24-hour cycle, but you should be able to say that you have experienced them all and can in some way count on them.)
Those who staff the place should by all means recognize a faithful patron, and pull the trick of pouring the favorite bracer as soon as he shuffles in, but they should also recognize those times when he wants to read, or write, or brood, or recuperate. There should be music–not a television–and the customer should be able to have some say in its nature, also its wattage.
The clientele should be various, but not atomized. One wants the certainty of a few familiar faces, but not too many of them or not except at predictable phases of the day. In other words, my true bar should have an element of cafe-society to it; a place for newspapers and espresso as well as cocktails and basic food, and a place where you could bring your mother, if you had a mother, for a light lunch as well as your mistress or male lover, if you had a mistress or male lover, for a late-ish nightcap.
I found this haven in New York some two decades ago, and it’s called the Cafe Loup. It’s on Thirteenth Street and always has been, though it shifted from a spot between Fifth and University to a location between Sixth and Seventh, increasing in size as it did so but managing somehow to take its ambiance with it. Thus, it has its loyalists among the denizens of the New School (where I teach part-time) and among the same-sex community of the Village, as well as among some of the rootless cosmopolitans and freelance intellectuals who used to identify with the old Lion’s Head on Christopher Street. America’s microcosmic Bohemias have taken a pasting of late from property values and gentrification–look what’s happened to North Beach or to much of the rest of the Village–but here a bit of the old atmosphere clings. There are black-and-white photographs of the Steiglitzian school, and there is a rack of magazines and papers (it was there that I acquired the hard-to-get but hard-to-lose habit of picking up the New Criterion).
In a very reassuring way, the bar is the dominant feature. It could perhaps be a fraction longer, but it is big and handsome and it runs much of the length of the room. Beyond two sets of double doors by the entrance is an alcove with tables set aside for smokers; separation rather than segregation but quite enough to satisfy all but the most hysterical anti-inhaler. Thus, the essential purposes of the place are well-enough affirmed at once. The room is long and dark, with defined dining areas and a ceiling that is not too high or too low. The music–I don’t have much of an ear for this sort of thing but I sure know what I don’t like–is principally jazzy and bluesey and doesn’t force itself upon you.
At different times, I have wandered in for mid-morning coffee and newspaper while the bar is being set up and the deliveries are taking place, and been the only customer while not being made to feel it. I have had long lunches in the near-deserted bar area, being allowed a big round table for only a few guests. I have dined by candlelight (I took a good friend there the night he’d had all his teeth extracted, because the light was so comfortingly low and sparing) and stayed at the bar until the small hours debating with newly-met fact-checkers from glossy or obscure magazines, or grizzled MittelEuropa exiles.
There used to be something definitely but indefinitely gay about the old Loup; it’s been a long time since any person of the male sex showed any interest in my person (or any interest of that kind, perhaps I should say in my own defense) sometimes I still get that impression of it. But it’s never been anything as obvious as a gay hangout; one just notices it as one of the warps and weaves of the place. Lovely women are to be found there in sufficient profusion and often enough–I don’t know why this is a good sign, but it is–either sitting alone or in groups.
I once found myself sharing the bar with the great restaurant critic Seymour Britchkey, who lives in the ‘hood. I can’t remember if he was eating or not; I won’t say that the Loup is a gourmet experience either. I always have the same thing (oysters followed by tarragon chicken) and that decision was after some trials and a few errors. But I’ve never left there feeling either hungry or insulted, and I can’t say the same for many New York places with more stars. The bill can be oddly steep, but that might be the wine list, which is pretty good. So, my few beer-loving friends tell me, is the ale agenda. The waiters and waitresses read you your rights about the odd special, without making an operetta out of it, or making you want to say “Hi! I’m Christopher and I’m damn well going to be your customer tonight.”
Details. The Cafe Loup has its own matchboxes, which are proper boxes with a sliding drawer and wooden matches. The boxes are illustrated with a nice shadow-hand silhouette of a wolf, and they used to–I can’t check this at the moment–have the phone number with a letter prefix instead of a numeral one; a touch that seemed right for some reason. The men’s room is alarmingly small, but it does have a fine pen-and-ink drawing of a big wolf lifting its leg–I can’t stand cutesy men’s room art–with the lupine injunction to respect alders, stay hungry, and stick with the pack. Lone wolves, nonetheless, are welcome (I mean in the bar itself, not the loo).
I too have a tendency to mark my territory and, even though New York has a more bewitching range of bars and restaurants than any other city on earth, I have often taxied many blocks or got others to do the same, in order to be reassured that I wasn’t wrong the first time and that some verities still hold.