A Union Square Tavern with a Literary Reputation and a Timeless Feel
During the late ’70s and early ’80s, Gerard Meagher, FCRH ’74, worked at Ted Bates, the advertising agency where Rosser Reeves (a model for the lead character on the TV show Mad Men) pioneered the “unique selling proposition.” To win over consumers, the theory goes, products must distinguish themselves from the competition. Decades later, long after leaving the world of advertising, Meagher applies the same principle to the operation of a New York institution founded in 1892.
Meagher has been a co-owner of the Old Town Bar and Restaurant since 2007, but he didn’t always envision himself a bar owner. He graduated from Fordham—where he was sports editor of The Ram—with a degree in English in 1974, then earned a master’s degree in advertising management from Northwestern. In search of “a job where I enjoyed myself,” he returned to New York City, where he was born and raised. But while working as an ad man—his accounts included companies like Heineken and Lysol—he also bartended one night a week at the Old Town, the Manhattan bar his father, Larry, managed.
The Old Town had been through a number of phases during its long life. Once known as Viemeister’s, the space at 45 East 18th Street became Craig’s Restaurant during Prohibition (when it was a speakeasy), and in 1933 changed its name to the Old Town for good. During the ’60s and ’70s, the Union Square area wasn’t as vibrant as it is today, and business was slow. The bar was frequented mostly by truckers—plus Andy Warhol and his associates, who worked at the pop art entrepreneur’s Factory on 17th and Broadway.
But Larry Meagher—who took over the Old Town upon the death of the previous owner in 1985—saw the bar as a “sleeping giant,” as his son Gerard tells it. Larry breathed new life into the place, not just by expanding the bar’s hours and reintroducing a food menu, but also by cultivating a new atmosphere. He’d playfully comment on current events by posting handwritten signs in the bar’s window. And he allowed the space to be used for film and TV shoots. It was a popular choice for production crews because of its high pressed-tin ceilings and classic look, and the exposure was good publicity. (The Old Town was featured in the opening montage of NBC’s Late Night With David Letterman, as well as in Madonna’s “Bad Girl” video—for which Larry charged the performer a higher rental fee as a “sin tax.”)
As his father’s health declined, Gerard become more involved in the day-to-day operations of the bar, and upon Larry’s death in 2007, Gerard and his four siblings assumed control, with Gerard taking on the most active role. He has continued some of the traditions his father started, like the handwritten notes in the window. (One of his favorites featured an old Yankees ticket stub with the message, “The most expensive Yankee ticket was $12 in 1989. You ought to have your head examined if you pay the absurd prices of today.”) And, drawing on his experience in advertising, Meagher has positioned the bar as a timeless New York institution.
Indeed, the original 55-foot-long mahogany-and-marble bar is still in place, and the dumbwaiter is the oldest active one in Manhattan. Even within the niche category of the city’s century-old drinking establishments, Meagher says his bar stands out. “We have real New York people that really know the city, and I think that’s what distinguishes us,” he says. “There’s old bars, but there’s very few old bars that have people that are old New Yorkers.”
Meagher grew up in Brooklyn, and some of his family’s history is told on the bar’s walls: A portrait of his father hangs in the back room, and opposite the bar, there’s an old campaign poster for Willie Meagher, his great-uncle, who for decades served as the Democratic boss of Williamsburg.
The age of the space, however, doesn’t mean the atmosphere is stodgy. Meagher’s promotion of the bar sometimes leans toward the off-beat and quirky: In 2010, for instance, the Old Town threw a 100th birthday party for its enormous Hinsdale men’s room urinals. “Blandness is not something people are looking for,” he says. “They want personality. And we try to give personality.”
The amiable Meagher has been known to sport a sharp-yet-relaxed look: including a splash of salmon in his outfit, for instance, or wearing shoes sans socks. And though he runs the day-to-day operations, he still serves as a host most nights, greeting patrons and catching up with regulars.
The Old Town has hosted a wide range of events, from an annual Christmas party (at which a priest from Fordham traditionally blesses the bar’s crèche), to a press conference at which Mayor Michael Bloomberg marked the 10th anniversary of the city’s ban on smoking in bars, to a post-NFL Draft party for former Fordham quarterback John Skelton, FCRH ’10. (Meagher’s connections to Fordham football don’t end there: Posters of vintage Fordham game programs hang on the walls, and he recently pledged $50,000 over five years to support the football fund.)
The bar has long been popular among writers, and Meagher is especially fond of the inscription written on a book jacket by Pulitzer Prize winner Frank McCourt, who called the Old Town a place “where you can still talk.”
Meagher says his father, who once worked as a copy boy at the New York Sun, always tried to make the Old Town a place where writers felt comfortable, and the walls today display framed book jackets signed by the likes of McCourt; Seamus Heaney; Jim Dwyer, FCRH ’79; and others.
Tom Kelly, FCRH ’87, author of Empire Rising (a novel set in 1930s New York) and executive producer and showrunner on Copper (a TV series set in 1860s New York), is a friend of Meagher’s. He says the bar is popular with writers because they can imagine all the life that’s unfolded there since 1892. “From a storyteller’s point of view,” he says, “it’s obviously a place where a zillion great stories have been told, and it sort of has that in the ether there.”
Kelly calls Meagher “one of the great New York City characters, who represents the lost art of the saloon owner.” And he understands the bar’s place in the fabric of the city.
“To me, it’s sort of a metaphor for New York,” Kelly says. “It really doesn’t matter when you walk in the door where you’re from or who you are. You feel equally welcome. It never had that sort of red-velvet-rope mentality that ruins too many places. I think it’s a great slice of New York life.”
—Joe DeLessio, FCLC ’06, is a senior producer at New York magazine’s website, nymag.com.