I am ashamed to admit it, but I never actually thought that the legendary West Village New York bar Chumley’s would ever reopen after being closed for nearly a decade. Shame on me.
The establishment, which, depending on who you ask, dates back to 1928, was opened by Lee Chumley. He ran the restaurant and bar for seven years (most of that falling during Prohibition) before passing away at the age of 50 from a heart attack. He lived, according to his New York Times obituary, in the building and had been “a laborer, soldier of fortune, stage-coach driver, ‘wagon tramp’ or freelance covered wagon driver, artist, waiter, newspaper cartoonist and editorial writer.”
The landmark was notable for several reasons. Chumley started the tradition of decorating the walls with framed book jackets. “He made it a point to obtain the jacket of a book on an author’s second visit to the restaurant,” wrote the Times. (Olympic boxer and bobsledder Eddie Eagan was the only exception to that rule: His Fighting for Fun was added to the gallery on his inaugural visit.)
Chumley’s unmarked entrance, on a quiet stretch of Bedford Street, and an even more secretive side entrance through an adjoining courtyard, set the place apart. Back in the day, I knocked on many a random locked door in pursuit of the correct way in.
I wasn’t alone. A 1930 review of the establishment, from the book Dining in New York, by Rian James, cautions readers that they may need to ask a policeman for directions. “Who probably won’t be able to help you much either; or you can, if you’re one of those people who don’t mind hunting for things in the phone book, telephone Mr. Lee Chumley, tell him where you are, and ask him how to get to where he is.” (A framed blowup of the review and the book’s cover were displayed in the bar for many years.)
But once you found your way inside, taking a mental note of the correct route, you generally joined a boisterous crowd. (Serious games of chess were played there for many years, too.) It was often so full, it would take a few minutes to get up to the bar and to catch the bartender’s eye.
The spot became easier to find in later years, thanks to idling tour buses outside. Just like Magnolia Bakery of Sex and the City fame, Chumley’s suddenly found itself on tourist’s itineraries again as the Village grew increasingly fancy.
It all came to an end at 1 p.m. on April 5, 2007, when a chimney from a neighboring building crashed through the wall of the dining room. Though no one was hurt in the accident, Chumley’s was dealt a possible deathblow. After an outpouring of support and testimonials by seemingly every living literary great, the joint began to fade into that weird New York middle ground, where defunct institutions (think CBGB and the Four Seasons restaurant) continue to be part of pop culture.
But here we are. Remarkably, Chumley’s is supposed to open at the end of September. What took so long? There were so many false starts and reports of its revival that I, like many New York drinkers, had given up hope. With each new delay, its closure became more and more painful. It was easier to skip the articles and updates and go on with life.
I figured it would ultimately be knocked down and replaced with a luxury townhouse featuring a brass plaque commemorating the bar’s long history.
Last week, for the first time in a while and after getting the chance to see a sneak peek of its progress, I allowed myself to get a bit excited about the possibility of drinking there once again. It was hard to reconcile my memories with its current condition. One of the problems with resuscitating Chumley’s was that everything had to be brought up to code; as a result, the ceiling is lower and the rooms are narrower than they were originally. (The entryway staircase is also gone.) The walls are once again adorned with the dozens and dozens of original black-and-white portraits of regulars and literary giants, like a turtleneck-sweater-wearing Ernest Hemingway. And, naturally, the signature book covers are up again. Some, however, are reproductions, since the originals were destroyed or disintegrated after being reframed.
It feels a little like wandering around a loved one’s home after they have died. There is also a nagging feeling of wanting to put things back the way they were.
Even more troubling is how I’m not completely sure if the bar will be able to reclaim its rightful place in New York history. When it closed, the rebirth of the cocktail was just kicking off and the current global craze for speakeasy-style bars hadn’t begun. It was almost as if Chumley’s had passed its torch to PDT, the James Beard Award—winning speakeasy-style bar in the East Village, which opened a month after the accident.
Only time will tell how Chumley’s will be received. That is, of course, if it ever does reopen. The legend was scheduled to start serving drinks and food on Sept. 6, but that was recently pushed back to Sept. 26.
I’m managing my expectations….