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Dive Bars Archive

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Great Dives of New England #3:
Dorrian’s

Last weekend, I journeyed down to New York City in order to visit friends and take in the Park Avenue Armory art show. I occasionally visit Manhattan for cultural events […]

Last weekend, I journeyed down to New York City in order to visit friends and take in the Park Avenue Armory art show. I occasionally visit Manhattan for cultural events and typically enjoy my visits. I briefly lived in Hell’s Kitchen in my mid-twenties and still have fond memories of that period in my life. I lived on West 39th and 9th streets in a cold-water, walkup apartment. My immediate neighbors consisted of three Puerto Rican blue-collar working families, a friendly expatriate Irish couple and two attic-dwelling Brazilian homosexuals who also performed as a duo drag act on the weekends. This disparate collection of humanity did not know what to do with me at first and we maintained an uneasy coexistence. I first broke the ice by killing a cockroach on the hallway floor after one of the wives had seen it and screamed. After dispatching it with a size eight cordovan, we started conversing and became friendly.

I was clearly an enigma to them as I kept regular hours and left every morning wearing a Brooks Brothers grey suit,  a white shirt and a regimental tie. I found out later that they initially thought I was a Mormon missionary because of my Nordic features and conservative dress. I burst out laughing when one of the Puerto Rican mamas told me this and assured her that I was NOT a Mormon and that I also found the Church of Latter-Day Saints just as banal as they did. After this we all grew close and I would occasionally be greeted with kindly calls of “Hey Peeta, what’ choo doin?!” as I went grocery shopping and on weekend bar excursions around the neighborhood. Although I became quite comfortable in the local streets, I often found myself on the Upper East Side for socializing and recreation. While there, I became a regular at Dorrian’s Red Hand Restaurant and I decided to revisit an old stomping ground on my most recent trip to the city.

Dorrian’s is a legend in its own right. Situated on East 84th and Second Avenue, its mahogany paneled doors have welcomed generations of overprivileged, WASP children from the Upper East Side, Newport, Beacon Hill, Georgetown and Greenwich. It serves a wide variety of beers and pours Scotch quite generously. Its menu offers typically American fare with cheeseburgers and New England clam chowder proving quite popular choices. Red and white checked tablecloths are festooned throughout the dining room and various Eighties tracks waft through the air. Predictably, singles by Foreigner, Journey, Phil Collins and Genesis are frequently played on the imposing jukebox located in the rear dining room. Dorrian’s is also infamous for being the former haunt of Robert Chambers, the Preppie Killer. This past history clouds its reputation and dissuades some people from drinking at the bar.

Chambers was a minor celebrity in the mid-Eighties. A native Upper East Sider, he was also a brute and misogynist who had been kicked out of several prep schools and Boston University. In the hot summer of 1986, he left Dorrian’s with a young coed in tow and promptly strangled her to death during a fit of anger in Central Park. When confronted by the police over his facial wounds from her fingernails, Chambers explained that she’d clawed him during throes of unwanted passion. This prompted the acerbic investigating attorney to remark that Chambers was the first man he’d met who’d been raped by a woman in Central Park. He was released on bail while the court assembled a jury and began proceedings.

The resulting deliberations were avidly covered by both New York newspapers and the national media. During the trial, a videotape surfaced that showed Chambers at an apartment soiree. Drunkenly clutching a Barbie doll, he twisted its head off and loathsomely remarked, “Oops, I think I killed it!” to the raucous partygoers. Public opinion turned against him, the jury found him guilty and Chambers was sentenced to fifteen years. He proved a violent inmate and after serving his full sentence was later tried and found guilty of cocaine distribution. He is currently serving nineteen years ‘up the river’. All of this clouds Dorrian’s and gives the restaurant a reputation for snobbish, chauvinistic prep school lacrosse players, younger Wall Street bankers and the blonde, Coach bag clutching gallerinas who love them.

I very much enjoy that subculture.

Above all, Dorrian’s is quite refreshing because it attracts a reliably white, educated and conservative crowd. Boys will wear Lacoste polos, Ray-Ban Wayfarers and Sperry Topsiders WITHOUT attempting to be ironic. Girls will attempt to look like their mothers and even wear their grandmother’s pearls. When you speak with someone, they will either be outgoing or dismissive depending on their interest, (intellectual, familial, sexual) in you. However, they won’t subject you to the kind of passive-aggressive, mocking tone that passes for discourse in SWPL circles. It’s one of the few places in Manhattan where I can get a good Scotch, a decent bowl of clam chowder and can avidly talk about small coastal towns in Maine with another young person. Many of the girls are assistant editors for publishing firms or auction house art specialists so I can discuss English literature and art history. There’s a sense of genuine camaraderie at Dorrian’s for white Americans of a certain class and age, which is so refreshing in the Big Bagel.

This past Friday, I left the Waldorf-Astoria wearing a navy blazer, blue shirt, repp tie and faux-Gucci (Cole Haan) loafers. I took a taxi to Dorrian’s, entered and spent the next three hours socializing and conversing with the bar’s customers. I met a lovely young girl who graduated from Bryn Mawr and was working for a smallish publishing house specializing in British literature. She reminded me of Chloe Sevigny’s character in Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco. I also spoke to a bright young man who was working for the Met as an intern in their European paintings department. Later on, the night became much more wild as phalanx after phalanx of baseball cap wearing Duke University and Trinity College boys descended on the bar. The songs became louder as did the patrons. Politely excusing myself to visit the gents’ room, I found that I had to delicately step over a puddle next to the urinal caused by the drunken incontinence of patrons and faulty plumbing. I always find the antics of youth so amusing. After finishing my Laphroaig, I took my leave and exited into the brilliantly-lit Manhattan night.

I am drawn to Dorrian’s for the same reasons that hipsters are repelled by it. It’s preppy, conservative, ‘heterosexist’ (?) and provides a wonderful chance to meet other young people. Although I’m now at an age when I prefer Swifty’s or La Grenouille, Dorrian’s still provides a good night’s merriment and potential companionship for the rest of the evening!

Rating:

Five shots out of five.

4

Great Dive Bars of New England #2:
The Main Tavern

DerryBusLARGE

“When the Falcon was opened in 1973, Elmer Curtie thought his clientele would consist mostly of bus-riders–the terminal next door serviced three different lines: Trailways, Greyhound and Aroostock County.”
Stephen King, (1986)

The Main Tavern occupies an especial place in the hierarchy of Bangor’s bars. It is NOT for the respectable doctors, lawyers and old Yankee families in their Greek Revival and Italianate mansions on West Broadway. Nor is it for the teachers, nurses and shopkeepers who make up the town’s middle classes. The college kids from the University of Maine at Orono avoid it and even fisherman flush with cash on payday will not drink there. People speak of it in judgmental tones and being seen entering it will damage one’s reputation. Mothers when walking down Main Street will cross to the other side and pull their children along; presumably to escape its harmful vapors. It’s seen as a ‘bad’ place and potentially quite dangerous.

Needless to say, I love it.

The Main Tavern opened in 1948 and has been continually owned by the Brountas family. What makes it so unique and supposedly disreputable is that it is right next to the city’s bus terminal.  Bangor is also the final stop on Greyhound’s Northern line. After this, travelers board the Aroostook County line in order to reach impoverished villages spread like a spider’s web towards the distant Canadian border. So, for many people Bangor is the end of the line both literally and metaphorically. They have run away from their past lives, lovers and families to find themselves in an old logging city along the Penobscot. Greyhound stations attract people from all walks of life; including drifters and bums. Down to their last two dollars for a Pabst blue ribbon, they stumble next door into a dimly lit cavern and a smiling bartender. There, they soak up what little happiness they can create amidst a miasmic haze of cigarette smoke mixed with a trace of marijuana and the faint, acrid smell of spilled meth. It’s actually a very friendly place with the companionship you’d expect to find among the dead and damned.

I first ventured into the Main Tavern while on an epic pub crawl in downtown Bangor as a young man. I had been drinking at a respectable Irish pub across the street and asked the bartender where I could find a local place with colorful characters. I said that I wanted a ‘working-class place with people who had no teeth and just enough money left for one domestic beer’. He immediately pointed across the street and said, “That’s the place you’re looking for but it’s not for upscale guys like you.” I should point out that I was wearing grey suit trousers, a blue buttoned-down shirt with a Brooks Brothers striped tie, a double-breasted blazer with gold buttons and matching faux-Gucci loafers (Cole Haan) with gold straps. I conceded his point, took off my tie and unbuttoned my shirt collar. I said, “Now I’m ready” and sailed out the door leaving an astonished bartender behind. I walked across the street, sidestepped past a couple of emaciated townies in trucker hats and flannel and made my way inside.

When stepping inside, I immediately noticed the dark haze of cigarette smoke and Billy Idol wafting through the air. I walked past two gentlemen in Red Sox baseball caps drinking at a little table just inside the bar. As I made my way to the bar on the left, I noticed that the room was actually quite long. There was a pool room in the back with a few, half-interested players. I sat down at the bar and ordered a gin and tonic from the bartender. He immediately asked for my ID, which I of course took as a compliment. I am twenty-nine years old and still get carded regularly. Once he peered at it with the aid of a Maglite, he complimented me on my youthful looks and served me. After taking a first gulp of the house gin (rotgut) I turned and peered into the darkness. The various townies and troglodytes were clad in the best Northern New England garb imaginable! Carhartt jackets, Lee Jeans and Budweiser caps abounded. I watched the pool game for a few minutes and then turned back to the bar to engage in conversation.

The person to my immediate right at the bar was a mature sixtyish woman with a walker and a pink fleece tracksuit. She wore her hair back in a bun, peered out at the world through round glasses and was drinking a Bud Light. We fall to talking and she informed me that she was the owner’s mother-in-law. For the next two hours we discussed Maine culture, politics, race relations and sports. I learned that she had six children and came from a large family herself. Working from the age of fourteen, she had managed to raise a successful family. She reminded me of those tough, working-class Maine women in Stephen King’s fiction. Her mannerisms, slang and accent with its ‘ayuhs’ all resonated within me. In the words of a local author, “It’s not Vacationland for most of us, it’s work your ass off for nothing land.” Maine can be a hardscrabble life but its people are just as tough. I sipped my gin and tonic while listening to her stories about the city and its people and it was with reluctance that I finished my drink and slipped out of the bar at midnight.

The Main Tavern is an institution in Downtown Bangor. Its dark interiors, colorful characters and Eighties jukebox all appeal to me. I am brought back to the New England of my childhood and love it immeasurably. For a good night and wonderful memories, give it a try! You’ll see the real Maine writ large and it will open your eyes.

Rating: Five shots out of five.