Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel
Deirdre and Barry Cullen of Sazerac House
After four decades, Sazerac no longer in the house
By Kathleen Squires
Barry and Deirdre Cullen dropped a bittersweet bombshell recently when they announced that their longstanding Village restaurant, the Sazerac House, will close its doors at the end of September. And for once, Villagers don’t have high rents to blame. This time, it’s a proprietorship that simply wants to retire.
Most people would be happy to hear of their friends’ plans to stop working. Many of the long faces inside the 41-year-old New Orleans-inspired eatery, however, view it as a tragedy of epic proportions.
“It’s not like we lost the restaurant in a poker game,” Deirdre said. “It’s something that we carefully considered. Barry has been doing this a long time and it’s time that we spent more time together.” True enough. But many of “The Saz’s” regulars, this writer included, can’t help but feel a deep sense of loss.
Since 1965, the Sazerac House has served notable regulars such as John Belushi, who liked to pull his ample belly up to the bar; Quentin Crisp, who spun many a yarn from his perch at a church pew that double as a booth; Norman Mailer, who rehearsed his famous play “Deer Park” in the back room; and social-realist painter Jack Levine, who at 91 is still a patron.
“I’ve waited on some great people here,” said longtime staffer Phillip Spinelli, who first worked in the spot as a brunch waiter in 1971. “Carol Channing, Gilda Radner, Cherry Jones, RuPaul, Olympia Dukakis just to name a few.”
But there are noncelebrities who give just as much character to the spot. Like Davey Jones, a randy, whiskey-swilling ex-seaman who spends half the year in the Village, and half in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where he owns a famous dive. Or Betty, a teacher who favors white wine and likes to sit in the corner. And Dale, who eats dinner at The Saz every night, and whose twice-a-day habit was abruptly curbed when they stopped serving lunch two years ago.
And then there’s the staff.
“We would hire by personality and attitude,” said Deirdre. “Skills would always come later.” That couldn’t be more obvious, with a cast of characters that includes the wisecracking Spinelli, who always keeps the house in stitches; John Friberg, an adorable Swede who counts on 10 loyal regulars every night; and low-key Terry Tracy, who makes an especially great football-watching companion.
“I put myself through college with the money I earned here,” said proud Hunter graduate Rebecca Flores, who grew up around the corner and has many memories of visiting the restaurant for burgers and sodas as a little girl.
Redheaded Gail Broussard is a 24-year vet who compares the Saz experience to “working in my living room.”
And lest we forget the mom and pop: Barry, a born-and-bred Villager, opened the Sazerac House in 1965 and bought the building a few years later. (His ex-wife now holds the deed). He brought up three kids in the building but only one caught the restaurant bug daughter Laura, who owns Clarke’s in Miami. Tall, sharp-witted Deirdre came to work at the Saz in 1987 after quitting her corporate job with the May Company. Romance bloomed between her and the world-wise owner and she soon became the new Mrs. Cullen.
Sazerac House was known for the diversity of its bohemian clientele gay, straight, old, young, couples, singles, groups, writers, artists, doctors, priests, professionals. Everyone seemed to be in on the same jokes, sharing some kind of common ground. In its own way, it represented a Greenwich Village that barely exists any longer.
All may not be lost upon closing, however. In mid-October, the space will morph into Bayard’s Ale House, the creation of four Irishmen who have great respect for the Saz’s history and the West Village community.
“Once I walked into the space, felt its history and saw the mix of people, it was a no-brainer this was where we wanted to be,” said Bayard’s partner Matthew Moran. Naming it after the carpenter who first occupied the landmarked 1826 building was the first sign that the new ownership is “More into looking back to 1826 rather than beyond 2006,” said Moran.
Still, there will be some changes in addition to the name.
“We’re going to tweak the décor a bit, and extend the bar, and serve 16 beers on draft in addition to wine and cocktails.” The hours will be extended, too, opening at noon and closing at 2 a.m. But Moran swears that there will be a “no-neon-beer-sign policy” and that they will continue the tradition of “American-style food with old homey favorites at reasonable prices.” The menu will even include “Sazerac specials” like the famous crabcakes, jambalaya and shepherd’s pie.
Moran says he hopes to keep the entire kitchen and wait staff. Like beloved Sazerac bartender Nick Pinto once said, “The only decoration that matters is the people.” (May he rest in peace). So, maybe the spirit of the Saz will live on at Bayard’s after all.