Volume 74, Number 29 | November 24 - 30, 2004

Villager photo by Elisabeth Robert

The White Horse Tavern on Hudson St.

Tavern that put poet under, finds new life at 125

By Sarah Schmalbach

The first time Eddie Brennan stepped into the Greenwich Village bar he would one day own he was making one of the five stops on his boyhood paper route. Almost 60 years later he sits comfortably in jeans and a sweatshirt drinking coffee from a beer mug in the “Dylan Thomas Room” of The White Horse Tavern, his bar since 1967.

The tavern, celebrating its 125th anniversary this year, sits on the corner of Hudson and 11th Sts. and has been the cradle and the grave of many of its famous customers. The atmosphere and spirit of the tavern has given new life to the intellect and creativity of writers, artists and comedians such as Dylan Thomas, Anais Nin, Jack Kerouac, Norman Mailer and Andy Warhol; although the alcohol there has slowly lilted some of them towards the grave. Take Dylan Thomas, for example, who condensed the process into one night in 1953 when he killed himself by taking 18 straight shots of whiskey.

These days writers like Frank McCourt, author of the best-selling “Angela’s Ashes,” take a drink there, and in the recent past John Belushi often sat at the White Horse bar. In fact the night Belushi died in 1982 it is said that his “Saturday Night Live” partner Dan Akroyd walked in at closing time, shut the doors and bought the entire bar a round of drinks.

The White Horse Tavern continues to be a hangout for cultural celebrities because Brennan said “they’ve always been watched out for. The girls take care of them, don’t make a fuss and don’t let anyone bother them.” Today literary and artistic celebrities gravitate towards The White Horse because of its unpretentious atmosphere, drinks and the occasional plate of steak fries smothered in cheese and gravy.

Patrons can’t look about anywhere in the bar area without seeing one of at least a dozen white horses. The most prominent white horse stares down at customers from the wall behind the mirrored bar and was put there to advertise the still-served White Horse Whiskey. White horse heads perch in a circle atop the bar chandeliers and tiny white ivory horses are bucking and cantering along most of the ledges and shelves.

Taking a left turn from the bar into the first of two dining rooms (inaugurated as the “Dylan Thomas Room” in 1986) customers are confronted with a life-size black-and-white painting of the poet staring right at them, perhaps warning with his eyes against another shot of whiskey lest you “go very drunk into that good night.”

First-time customers come to The White Horse for the Heineken and Red Hook beer but often come back for the history. Morgan Conrad, a 24-year-old financial analyst from Philadelphia, when asked if he knew there was a room dedicated to Thomas, said, “I don’t know of the room and more pathetically, I don’t know the poet. I guess I would have to Google him.” He followed by saying that since he now knew about the room and its history, he would definitely make a point to come down more often from his Upper West Side apartment. “I love bars with old wood paneling,” he said. “That and the good ale are probably the only reasons I went in the first place.”

When Brennan took the reins in 1967 he claims the tavern was in a state of disrepair. Somehow in the 15 years after the publicity frenzy over Thomas’s drunken demise, the bar had faded fast into the depths of Greenwich Village anonymity. “I came in and made sure it was well stocked,” Brennan recalled. “I pumped up the image of it being one of the oldest saloons in New York. Nobody was capitalizing on its history, so I came in and I did.”

And he’s doing well.

A boom of business in the 1970s encouraged Brennan to expand the tavern considerably by adding another dining room and an outdoor cafe, and they still get filled almost every night. “When customers start appearing, you’ve got to put them somewhere,” he said. The entrepreneur, who’s “pretty much always been in the bar business,” added more beers to the menu, like the popular White Horse Ale and he also started up a weekend brunch. “The brunch is basically a drinkin’ lunch,” he explained. “What can I say? We’ve got drinkers and we take care of them.”

Jessica Avalone, a 23-year-old physical therapist from New Milford, Conn., has been to The White Horse twice with friends and both times she has sat outside in the sidewalk cafe for dinner. “My tuna melt was kind of cold but the only thing I was really concerned with was if there was liquor,” she said. Avalone, whose drink is a Seven and Seven, thought that a lukewarm sandwich served with a stiff drink of whiskey was a “nice compromise.”

Another draw, besides the history of resident bards and their legendary bloody burgers, is the bar’s own architectural and design history. The oldest thing in the bar is not Eddie Brennan himself, as he likes to quip, but the ceiling, which is hand-engraved and still bears the painted-over scars of the ripped out and replaced gas-light equipment. Another astonishing testament to the tavern’s authenticity is the bar itself, which is original and carved out of a single piece of mahogany. “No seams,” Brennan chimed in between sips of heavily creamed coffee.

Brennan said that the crowd is, “what’s the word…e-clectic?” He may be attracting an eclectic crowd with his wide selection of ales and hefeweizens (wheat beer), but he also brings people in with his classic version of a jukebox. A bit of Christmas-colored neon light nestled next to the grandfather clock in the corner of the bar, many customers take a break from their beer to feed the jukebox to hear their favorite songs from Morrissey, Santana, Radiohead, Counting Crows and many more. One such patron took a break from watching the Yankees strand countless base runners last month to try and pump up the crowd by pumping the volume. Benjamin Sloan, a 25-year-old real estate agent from Winston-Salem, N.C., said, “Any jukebox with Curtis Mayfield and Led Zeppelin is more than all right with me.”

So with the interview almost over and the coffee almost gone, this journalist wondered if there wasn’t a bit of whiskey at the bottom of Brennan’s mug. “Hey Eddie, when you’re not working here what do you order when you sit down and have a drink or two?” He didn’t hesitate to say that he quit drinking soon after he bought The White Horse. Although he loves that his customers are smitten with the spirits he sells, Brennan himself no longer drinks. “It gets bad when it’s free, ya know?” he said. “Either I die doin’ it, or I stop doin’ it and live a little longer.”

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