This essay is excerpted from COME HERE OFTEN? 53 Authors Raise a Glass to Their Favorite Bar edited by Sean Manning, courtesy of Black Balloon Publishing.
A lot of people don’t like Midtown Manhattan bars—or Midtown Manhattan in general. For me, it has always been the best part of the city: the swirling whirlpool of personalities and pressures. The place where all sorts of people could be found crammed together—everyone from business workers to construction guys, from tourists to students, from crazy people to wealthy shoppers. It’s why I wanted to live in New York City in the first place, and why I worked year after year to make my way closer and closer to Midtown. I don’t like the area because it makes sense to me. I like it because it doesn’t make any sense to anyone. It makes me feel out of place in the best way. Other parts of the city have lots of people who remind me of myself: similar interests, similar social circles, similar styles and backgrounds. That’s too easy and too comfortable. Give me Midtown, with all its off-kilter, commerce-driven chaos. There’s no way of knowing who is from where, what they’re doing here, or where they’re going next.
One of my favorite things about Midtown is Gabby O’Hara’s Irish pub. I’ve probably gone to Gabby’s more than any other bar in the world. Actually, I’ve probably gone there more than any other place in the world, other than my own house—well, that might be a slight exaggeration, but only slight.
I never really had a favorite bar before Gabby’s. I’d usually order drinks at restaurants or at venues when I was seeing a show or performing my own. Or I’d just go to a liquor store and buy a bottle of something. Why spend $25 on two drinks in an establishment when you get an entire bottle for the same price? But after randomly walking into Gabby’s for the first time in 2009, I realized exactly why people do go to bars, and why some of those bars become their favorite places to go, period.
A friend of mine had suggested we meet at Gabby’s for lunch. It was a spot he had been to many times, and even though I lived in the neighborhood, it had never really occurred to me to go inside. It’s next to a big chain hotel and the exterior is attached to an office building, so I didn’t really notice what it was offering. When I walked in, I was shocked by how well-finished and complete the pub looked and felt. It seemed like it could’ve been there for thirty years, despite being much newer. That feeling of familiarity and worn-in style didn’t come from artificially-aged patina or efforts to appear old; it came from the employees, and how perfectly they inhabited the space—as though they, and the bar, had always been there.
Now, for me, what makes a good bar has little to do with the price of the drinks, the selection of drinks available, the clientele, or even the decor and atmosphere; it has everything to do with the bartenders—it all comes down to who’s serving the drinks.
Don’t get me wrong: Gabby’s has an excellent selection of just about every sort of beer, wine, and liquor you could want, as well as really, really great dinner and lunch food. (I’ve eaten full meals there plenty of times, including Thanksgiving dinner.) The place is very cozy and comfortable, with a beautiful dark wood bar, plenty of seats and tables, and warm lighting. But it’s the people who work there that truly make it remarkable. I’ll even say that the service at Gabby’s is amongst the best service I’ve experienced anywhere, whether it be at a bar, a restaurant, or just dealing with service from people in general. And the high- quality service isn’t just for the regulars. I’ve seen plenty of first-time visitors treated with the same perfect blend of attention and low- key respect that I’ve enjoyed over many years of patronage. In fact, I’ve learned how to be a better person by watching how the bartenders at Gabby’s approach their craft and treat their customers. At some point in day-to-day life, everyone ends up serving someone else, and when it’s done with the kind of care that Gabby’s puts into it, the very idea of service is elevated to an angelic realm. In other words, it’s humanity at its best, and it makes me happy just thinking about the place.
Gabby’s is a true Irish pub, meaning it’s owned and operated by people from Ireland. I think everyone working there, except some of the cooks, was born in Ireland. Out of respect for the other excellent pubs I’ve visited in Manhattan, I’ve noticed that the bartenders at genuine Irish pubs have a similar level of focus and excellence. This seems to be a tradition and part of the appeal of the Irish pub specifically. Because of this, whenever I’m in another town and am looking for a drink, I would always choose a proper Irish pub over any other breed of drinking establishment.
I’ve found Gabby’s to be the best Irish pub in New York City—at least for me and what I’m after. It seems to be the place I’m meant to be, and that’s a special and rare thing to find in a city. There may be sexier bars, or older bars, or cheaper bars, or fancier bars, but I have NEVER been to a bar with better bartenders than Gabby’s, anywhere in the world, and that’s what matters most to me.
The bar service revolves around a core group of five main bartenders. There are also lovely cocktail waitresses, but I’ve only really ordered at the bar, so the fellows tending to it are the folks I’m most familiar with.
Martin usually works the early shifts when they open for lunch around 11 a.m. I think he’s the oldest one and has a very soothing, fatherly quality—but in a completely non-judgmental and warm way. Plus, he has a wonderfully heavy pour. I’ve seen him come in to Gabby’s on his nights off to show the place to friends and family. He’s even bought me drinks on those occasions, and made me feel like a member of his extended troop.
Desmond is closer to my age, and anytime I’ve brought a lady into Gabby’s, they’ve always developed a crush on him. He’s someone I would trust to do the right thing in just about any situation, and I’ve seen him handle plenty of ordeals in the bar with a level grace that far exceeds his years.
Andy was the mystery and the toughest nut to crack for a long while—he’s the most serious of all the fellows. Earning his respect took a bit more time, but it meant all that much more when we finally hit it off. We share the same name, so that helped. He has the least tolerance for foolishness and that’s part of his charm and adds a sense of balance and integrity to the overall texture of Gabby’s.He loves to talk about his kids and family, but always with a focused and stern delivery. He is the fastest moving and most determined bartender of the bunch and is quick to send food back to the kitchen if he doesn’t think it looks right, even before serving it to a customer.
Aiden is the youngest Gabby’s bartender, I think.He’s often the one closing up at 4 a.m., but will take his time to make sure all is well, even if it means he’s leaving at 6 a.m. or later. I’ve never met a nicer guy. Sometimes in the early morning, when I got up to catch a taxi to the airport, I would see Aiden walking home, having finished a shift at 8 a.m.
Then there’s the owner, Tom, who may be about Martin’s age, or older. Despite being hardcore Irish, he lives and breathes American country music, and I’ve learned a great deal about classic and modern country by listening to his jukebox selections. When Tom starts singing along to “Seminole Wind,” you get the sense that he’s living the true American dream—doing what he was born to do and being where he was meant to be.
These gentlemen have made my partying dreams come true time and time again. I’ve gotten so spoiled by their excellence that almost every other bar falls short by comparison. What makes them so great is their absolute focus, not only on the bar, but on the customers, too, and always with good cheer and a calm attitude— they never sacrifice the quality of their character for the quality of their service—a nearly impossible balance to maintain. I’ve never seen anyone wait for service, or have to fight for a bartender’s attention, even on a crowded weekend night. I’ve never seen a bartender at Gabby’s try to avoid serving someone or disappear and leave the bar unattended. Even when a customer has gotten out of line, they’ve handled it as smoothly and as professionally as they would handle a bottle of rare whiskey. It really is a sight to behold.
I’ve gone into other bars in the city and asked the bartender a simple question like, “What’s the highest proof bourbon you have?” only to find the bartender smirking and commenting, “Must be a bad day, huh?”I actually wasn’t having a bad day at all. I was having a great day. So I quickly left that bar and found another with a better bartender. You will never hear unnecessary comments made about customers’ drinking styles at Gabby’s. They’ve perfected that rare and subtle blend of warmth and distance, work and fun, energy and relaxation.
Gabby’s isn’t the realm of “mixologists” making drinks that take ten minutes to prepare and muddle (although they certainly possess the skills to do so). Instead, Gabby’s is a place where you’ll be served quickly and without any nonsense or chatter. Unlike other bars, I’ve never had a bartender at Gabby’s give me a weird look when asked for a certain kind of drink or spirit, or try to make small talk, thinking it will guarantee them a better tip. At other places, the bartenders tried to strike up unnecessary and awkward conversations about my order, or my clothes, or my personal life. For me, less is more when it comes to bartending. At Gabby’s, they only talk if you want to talk, and it won’t be forced or overly aggressive, but charming, witty, and quick—so the focus can remain on the bar itself. They remember every regular’s name and immediately understand what sort of demeanor each regular customer prefers. Some folks love to talk sports.Others don’t want to talk at all and just prefer to listen.
I’ve enjoyed plenty of laughter-filled nights with friends at Gabby’s, jamming out to perfect selections on the jukebox. I’ve enjoyed nights alone where I watched sports on TV and people perform karaoke with live bongos and tambourine. I’ve taken friends there from out of town who were treated like old regulars and even let behind the bar to prepare their own drinks (and serve other customers). But some of my best times were simply walking in when the place was almost empty, and just sitting quietly by myself, enjoying being there instead of somewhere else.
God Bless Gabby’s. God Bless New York City. And God Bless This Book. PARTY HARD FOREVER.
Submit your own favorite bar from anywhere in the world at the Black Balloon website.