Faux Atmosphere

Chef Geoff with former Lakewoodite Jim Schwinn

Every eating or drinking establishment, if successful, attempts to emanate an atmosphere that attracts the targeted clientele. For the carriage trade, there is a certain elegance, starched tablecloths, maybe even uniformed wait staff. The corner bar puts forth a friendly dark clubiness, maybe a neon or two, a dartboard, and the glow of a ball game on a corner TV. There are those who attempt to replicate pubs found elsewhere, often with excellent results. Then there are the franchise chains, with their variety of garage sale treasures that generally have nothing to do with either the establishment or its locale, but seek to give a certain homey clutter to what is an otherwise sterile corporate façade. 

But, true atmosphere can take a long time to develop. Most establishments must, of necessity, opt for some form of instant atmosphere. It is only those places that have been around for a good many years that seem to have an authenticity to it. But, unlike the corner bar that displays the softball trophies of the teams it sponsored in the 80’s, or the accumulated photos of near-famous customers or past magazine awards and John Long reviews, what we find is faux atmosphere. It really doesn’t connect. With the exception of a high school pennant, an Applebee’s in Cleveland looks pretty much like one in Marietta. Even the most skillfully executed copy of a Dublin Pub is only that: a copy. What brings up this subject of pretend atmosphere is my recent trip to a place that had the real thing, which only pointed out the hollowness of the faux.

Real atmosphere, the genuine article, takes a good deal of time for its development. Some of the long-term watering holes have it, as do some of the eateries in little Italy that have been around for the better part of a century. And for someone with a real interest in history, going to such an establishment can be as fascinating as a trip to a museum. Indeed, it IS a trip to a museum, albeit one that serves spirits and food. And during my recent campout in Manhattan, I was fortunate enough to experience the archetype, the epitome of the long-term development of atmosphere. We’re not talking about the Disneyesque planned decorating that represents faux atmosphere. We’re talking about decades of accumulated memorabilia (and accumulated dust) that cry out, “This is the real deal!” What I’m talking about is the Mecca of genuine atmosphere: McSorley’s Ale House.

McSorley’s is in a small, non-descript building at 15 East 7th Street in lower Manhattan. And it’s been there since 1854, even operating through prohibition. It attracts afficionados from across the US. And it has nothing whatever to do with its bar, which serves either McSorley’s Light or Dark Ale. It has nothing to do with the food offerings: Cheese and crackers, liverwurst and crackers (both with strong onions and equally strong mustard), and a burger or sandwich from a small galley kitchen. It has everything to do with its time-honored traditions and genuine atmosphere, so rich that you are full without needing to eat. A pair of boots are affixed to the wall, formerly worn by JFK’s grandfather. A pair of handcuffs are on the bar rail, left by Houdini after an escape demonstration. Countless photos and momentos completely fill the place, each with a story to tell and something to add to the mix.

I was directed to the front room, near the working coal-fired pot-bellied stove. “Take a look at the gas light fixture over the bar”. I did, but could not determine the origins of the gray shapes that hung from it. Dusty, interlaced with cobwebs, they were impossible to indentify. And so I asked, and learned that young patrons of McSorley’s, prior to embarking for France during WWI, had placed wishbones on the fixture. Upon returning, the discharged doughboy would return to McSorley’s and remove his talisman. What remains represents a shrine to those who never returned. Wishbones left to guarantee a safe return, left in place for nearly a century, undisturbed. It gave one the sense of living with history. Perhaps that weathered table was the same one where Lincoln once sat. Was I sitting in a regular’s favorite chair whose wishbone still hung on that lamp, or perhaps a more recent patron who was a victim of 9/11?

We spent several hours at McSorley's. We could have spent several more. Like any place with real atmosphere, real history, there was more than we could take in during a short afternoon. As with such places whose atmosphere is genuine, whose history is palpable, it beckons you to return. And so we will, and doubtless we will see a part of history previously missed, or newly added. Therein lies the difference from those franchise cookie-cutter establishments who package their faux atmosphere as part of their theme. The difference between a museum and a novelty shop. Of being in a place, like Lakewood (or McSorley's) that has a history, or a lifestyle community that merely copies that reality.

Read More on Chef Geoff
Volume 4, Issue 6, Posted 9:13 AM, 02.27.2008