BY CLAIRE McCURDY
Peter McManus Café is actually a bar—a Chelsea bar’s bar. Iconic. Owned and operated by four generations of the McManus family. A place so sure of itself that it has only recently put up a Facebook page, generally relying on word of mouth from the four generations of satisfied customers. . Burnished long deep brown bar, cut glass mirrors behind the bar, bright green banquette tables and a beer and food menu which changes very slowly if at all- we are talking generations here. It is a dark cave of a place which warmly beckons to all.
Peter McManus Café has been a fixture in the neighborhood since1936. And it continues to draw a crowd of neighborhood folks and auslanders alike from a pack of sharp young lawyers to aging/or aged hippies in overalls, to firemen, or contractors on a neighborhood job, to the odd barfly maintaining a seat on a stool with a certain amount of difficulty. There are a few women, too, especially at night (read: after 6:00) when bright color and glamour and some intense flirtations enter the bar; but during the day, it seems to be province of men. The place even hosts the out of the way casual customers on their way to the Chelsea galleries, or to the trendy thrift shops in the west 20’s.
The bartender today is a guy whose bushy gray beard and moustache cover the bulk of his face, but he is as warm and genial as his many clean shaven predecessors—probably his father and grandfather. Joking with everybody, he and his remarks bring snorts and bellows of laughter down the bar even to the corner table where I sit. The bartender even manages to extend a helping hand to the tippling barfly while pulling generous pints of beer.
McManus does serve mixed drinks, but I saw very few tiny little umbrellas or pink monkeys depending from a glass. The mixed drinks are very much an afterthought to the fine beer menu which is as long as your arm and begins but does not end with Guinness. I had a wonderful black and tan- Guinness with lager, which if poured correctly spills into an even split of half black Guinness, half warm golden lager and when you drink it, the two flavors mingle on the tongue.
There’s food, but no fancy chic fusion stuff- – good basic decent burgers which won applause from my dining companion, (the chiliburgers are legendary), a giant pile of steak-cut fries, , a few salads which are surprisingly varied and tasty for a meat and potatoes kind of place, and my personal fave, the fennel scented knockwurst and sauerkraut. Smothered with mustard, it was a meal so hearty that I was not hungry until some twelve hours later.
To history starved New Yorkers a bar/restaurant which has survived longer than a season is a rarity; four generations, outstanding and virtually unique. The bar’s history can be read from its walls. I sat under a large McManus portrait and at my left hand a foldout picture of Company D, 130th Infantry, where if one could just pick him out was doubtless James J. McManus. No date, but clearly World War II.—we know he served in the Philippines and won two Purple Hearts. I also sat directly in front of a TV playing the Food Channel, tear stained contestants slicing and dicing, running on a loop; and a flashing automated red menu announcing the much touted Goose Island Summer beer. Nostalgia, chic collations, trendy seasonal beer: All one’s needs taken care of.
Before we left, completely sated, we wanted to check one small niggling detail. Could the banquette have been covered with red plastic last time we were here? Instead of the current green? We asked our friendly and convivial waitress.. She sternly told us that nothing of the sort had happened or, would ever happen is she had anything to say about it. “We don’t change anything much around here at Peter McManus. We like things to stay pretty much the same.”
How could we argue? A steady port in an unsteady changing world. We felt exactly the same way.