Tuesday, April 26, 2011

What Makes P.J. Clarke's - The Vatican of Saloons, NY and now Las Vegas

There are probably only a handful of honest-to-goodness Saloons left in the country. With the opening of P.J. Clarke’s in The Forum Shops at Caesars Palace this peculiarly American institution brings an East Coast attitude to Las Vegas in a big way. While new to Las Vegas, P.J. Clarke’s bar and restaurant in New York is legendary. The bar was once owned by a Patrick J. Clarke, an Irish emigrant who was hired in the early 1900’s by a Mr. Duneen who ran the saloon. After about ten years working for Duneen, Clarke bought the bar and changed the name. The rest, as they say, is history. Over the years, P.J. Clarke’s has been featured and referenced in television, movies and in song. From being used for the final scene in Annie Hall to the after-work stop for the fictional ad executives on Mad Men to allegedly inspiring a Dave Matthews Band song, P.J. Clarke’s has had an impact on popular culture for more than a centu ry.

Today, the New York Times calls it “The Vatican of Saloons,” Frank Sinatra sang about it, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about it and its cast of legendary regulars has included Nat King Cole, Buddy Holly, Joan Crawford, and Jackie O. This saloon has a 120-year history of entertaining the famous, the infamous and everyone in between.

To get to the heart of the P.J Clarke’s spirit we had a drink at the bar with the guys who make it happen. The room has the warm familiar feel of your favorite neighborhood joint. The 38-foot long antique mahogany bar is both warm and welcoming, while tiles that once adorned the walls of New York subway tunnels and lighting from Victorian times are used to good effect. The timeless jukebox pumps out classic Etta James, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett with a dash of the Rolling Stones.

Present are owner Phil Scotti (the quintessential hard-boiled New Yorker with a heart of gold), celebrated Chef Johnny Church, famed culinary director Larry Forgione, and Woody, the big guy standing behind the bar - a real bartender’s bartender - making drinks for the lunch crowd.

The term saloon conjures images of whiskey shots, cowboys, and cards. We’ve knocked back some whiskey, but I don’t see any cowboys or cards here. How do you define saloon?

Phil: It’s a comfortable and familiar place that serves honest drinks and great food without pretension. More importantly, democracy reigns supreme at a Saloon: construction workers and cab drivers rub shoulders with bankers and CEOs.

Woody: It’s really a man’s place that women love!

When people think about saloons they don’t often think about the food…

Woody, Yeah, but we’re The Vatican of Saloons!

Johnny: The food here is amazing! Everything is handmade and prepared fresh only using the best ingredients... NO SHORTCUTS!

Larry: From the care put into forming each tater tot to perfecting the crust on the chicken pot pie, everything is truly handmade – and you can taste the difference.

What should I order?

Johnny: Everything is great, but the burger is LEGENDARY.

Phil: Nat King Cole called it The Cadillac of Burgers and the name has stuck.

Larry: It’s the best burger you’ll ever try. That is a Promise. Our burgers are made with Meyers Ranch Beef – the taste is amazing when you use quality-raised beef.

Johnny: We also do American comfort food: steaks, chicken pot pie, oysters… I’m partial to the
Guinness Braised Short Ribs. Did I mention that I love Guinness?!

Which takes us to the bar. This is indeed an impressive bar, but what makes a great bar GREAT!

Woody: A wise and handsome bartender like me! (laughter) You know, one with a bartender that will remember your name and your drink of choice and make it correctly, each time.

Phil: But he’s right: it’s about the People – the people you hire, the people you attract and the people you keep. It must be democratic by nature, straight- forward, and have a very healthy dose of irreverence.

Woody, please make me your favorite drink…

Woody: Old Fashioned neat coming up. It is the perfect cocktail.

Do you give advice?

Woody: All the time! My advice in a nutshell is, “you made it to P.J.’s, things are better already!” (laughter)

Las Vegas is one of the most competitive environments for restaurants and bars – why will P.J.’s succeed?

Phil: Because we’re authentic, because we serve good food, good drinks and good will. We want to be the restaurant that you come back to year after year.

You guys talk a lot about Authenticity – how hard is it to stay true to your vision in a town like Las Vegas?

Phil: I believe people everywhere appreciate quality and value. I believe everyone likes to be comfortable in a familiar atmosphere. I believe everyone likes to be appreciated. We have real bartenders who serve real drinks, a great chef preparing great food, the best beef in the country, a Raw Bar that’s unsurpassed and a staff that likes to have fun. We’re just going to be ourselves

When someone comes to P.J. Clarke’s for the first time what should they expect?

Johnny: The best food and drinks made with the finest ingredients…

Phil: …and we’ll say please and thank you.

Woody: And mean it!

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