Last year, I was bar-hopping around the Village with Mary Kate — my then-girlfriend, now wife — when I noticed we were near Pegu Club, the iconic cocktail bar on West Houston Street. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to drop by to see how the old girl was holding up? Well, of course it would! It was always a good idea to drop by Pegu Club.
We hoisted ourselves atop two bar stools in the center of the long, uneven wooden bar and surveyed the menu. It was a list of old friends that never let you down, most of them invented by the bar’s co-founder and guiding spirit, Audrey Saunders. Gin-gin Mule, Old Cuban, Little Italy, Jamaican Firefly, the decadent Jimmie Roosevelt (cognac and Champagne and Chartreuse), and on and on. The menu rarely changed over the bar’s 15-year life. Why fix what ain’t broke?
I was newly glad that those modern classics were still on the menu when it became clear that Mary Kate had not tried many of the drinks. So we started ordering them, one by one, beginning with the Fitty-Fitty (a martini with equal portions of dry vermouth and gin that was revolutionary when first offered), and making our way through an Earl Grey Mar-TEA-ni (a sour with Earl Grey–infused gin) and Dreamy Dorini Smoking Martini (a vodka drink laced with peaty Scotch and Pernod). We ended with the Kill-Devil, a bizarre and forbidding mélange of rhum agricole, green Chartreuse and bitters, topped with overproof rum carefully rested on a lime disk and set on fire.
“Oh, that’s good,” said Mary Kate after tasting the first drink. Then, “That’s good, too.” And, “That’s really good!” She was right. They were all good. They were always good.
Much has been made of Pegu Club’s influence on America’s bar culture, but less has been said about its continued excellence as a bar on its own terms. I made it a point to check in with Pegu Club at least a couple times a year, even as it became impossible to make time for all the new cocktail bars that opened in New York City. It was like touching base, a reminder of how the cocktail revival had begun, and a refresher on the baseline standards that characterized the movement.
At least, that’s what I told myself — that I was on the job, conducting what’s known in my line as “research” (the word always uttered with air quotes). Really, I just liked the cocktails and the bar and staff. If I was lucky, Robert Oppenheimer, perhaps the most consummate and polished bar-floor manager in the city, was on duty. It didn’t matter who was behind the bar. They had all been through Audrey Saunders boot camp; they had the skills.
I sat at the bar when I could, but when the stools were filled, and traffic too deep, I grabbed one of the snug two-tops opposite the bar, sinking down into one of the cozy, green U-shaped chairs that seem to wrap themselves around you. From there I could survey the room, as well as inspect Houston Street through the noirish, latticed window treatments.
Usually, within a few minutes, a server would approach and deliver the message “Audrey says hello.” This would happen whether Saunders was in the bar or not. (Most often, she was not, as she has for years lived in Washington State with her husband, cocktail authority Robert Hess.) To be honest, I found this sort of proprietorial omniscience a little unnerving; one may want attention or anonymity in a bar, depending on the day and the circumstances, but one always wants control of that choice. But I had to admire her consistency of oversight, and, truthfully, I probably would have missed the messages if they had stopped. It was like learning that unseen Gatsby was grateful that you had accepted his party invitation.
One of my regular visits usually came in late December, whenever word went out that Pegu Club has begun serving Tom and Jerrys. Mixology types love old drinks, but few in New York actually go to the bother of making this once-popular, labor-intensive 19th-century punch, a sort of hot eggnog. There was never a set date for the drink’s arrival, just whenever Saunders thought it was cold enough outside; so you had to keep your ear to the ground.
Otherwise, my visits were random and frequently on the spur of the moment. Pegu was bigger than most of the classic cocktail havens in town. Because of that, there was always a good chance you could squeak in.
As a result, I somewhat took the bar for granted, perhaps wrongly. Obviously, wrongly, since the bar is now closed for good. Brutal New York real-estate realities notwithstanding, I believed there would always be a Pegu Club. It felt dependable, permanent, rock-solid. Surely, over the years it would age into a New York icon, like Bemelmans Bar or King Cole Bar. It had even begun to look a little worn around the edges, a development that I welcomed. Great bars feel lived in. Scrub away the patina, and you scrub away history.
True, 15 years may not seem like a terribly sizable chunk of history, particularly in a centuries-old city like New York. But in cocktail-revival years, 15 years is several generations. Pegu had achieved the level of institution, even legend, a term that is tossed around like penny candy, but here applies. I’ll always be grateful to have been around when it was around. I expect, in the future, when walking Houston Street with friends or family, to point out the second-floor space and say, “See that? That was Pegu Club.” And I expect them to answer, “No! Really?”