Sunday, September 4, 2011

Holiday Cocktail Lounge: It's Everything It Ever Was

Holiday Cocktail Lounge New York City Bar
By Mitch Broder

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.

Holiday Cocktail Lounge New York City Bar Interior Banquette
It’s a shadowy hideaway of tufted banquettes and wood-grain Formica tables, beyond a convivial circular bar ringed by tubular chrome-backed stools. The paneled walls sport glowing sconces that can transport you to decades past. The floors sport festive tiles that can transport you to a booth in the back.

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.

Holiday Cocktail Lounge New York City Bar Interior Memoir
Stefan continues: “We mostly served tough working men like Italians and Ukrainians. Over the years we have become close to the regulars and losing one is like losing an old friend.” He also served local notables like the poet W.H. Auden, along with visiting notables like the actress Shelley Winters.

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.”

Holiday Cocktail Lounge New York City Vintage Destination


  1. I'm thinking that metal security door cover and window covering pretty much marks it as a dive bar with an edge. Takes one back to one's dive bar days...Thanks!

  2. These places scare me. They are for grown ups.

  3. Great post...I love this place! I especially love that Jingles had a phone booth for an office. Wondering if that makes me "Icy" because my office is a cube. Anyway...thanks for this.
    The quote "People like to explore new places but...come back to where they're comfortable." really sums things up!

  4. Tufted banquettes? Sounds swell.