When you see a place with an awning that says “Holiday Cocktail Lounge,” it’s wise to assume that the place won’t live up to the awning.
They just don’t make Holiday Cocktail Lounges the way they used to.
Except that this Holiday Cocktail Lounge was made when they made them the way they used to.
The reason the lounge is so well-preserved is because its original owner preserved it for as long as he owned it, which was over forty years — and also because the new owner is his son, who has seen no more reason to wreck a perfectly good place than he did.
“We’re the keepers of the flame,” says the lounge manager, Jeff Tendler. “People love this place. Like they say, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. We have fun. We mix it up. We don’t make a fortune here. We’d rather our customers have a good time.”
The original owner was Stefan Lutak, who was born in Ukraine, where he reportedly played professional soccer and later deserted the Russian army. He and his wife, Jeri, came here in 1949, and Jeri bought the bar in 1965. Stefan’s memories of the lounge are posted near the entrance.
He says that the onetime beauty parlor became a bar in 1936. “It was an all Italian place when we took over,” he writes. “The customers played cards, pool and bet on the horses.” Jeff says that it was a restaurant named Casablanca’s, which had in residence a bookie who was called Jingles because his office was the phone booth.
He dealt with the punk era by graciously serving the punks, while simultaneously insisting upon keeping them in line. He writes that he kicked one kid out because he “came in with terrible clothes on. His face was red with anger. He left. But you know what, he came back and his clothes were better.”
Stefan died at 89 in February 2009. Jeff says that he was still lugging beer cases around late into 2008. Jeff, with Stefan’s son Roman, reopened the bar soon after. Patrons were afraid of what they’d do to the place, then relieved when they did nothing.
It’s now an official dive bar, with the attendant attractions of charm and cheap beer, along with the mandatory year-round multicolored Christmas lights. The prices, Jeff says, are a bonus, but it’s the charm that’s the draw. If patrons stray to trendy bars, he says, they usually return to his leatherette seats.
“The one constant about New York City is its changeability,” Jeff says. “People like to explore new places. But they like to come back to where they’re comfortable. Coming here is like slipping on an old pair of jeans. People don’t come in here for drinks with fruit purées.”
Observe in your own way at Holiday Cocktail Lounge, 75 St. Mark's Place, near First Avenue, in Manhattan.