Manhattan is an infinite concrete web of streets and alleys, filled to the brim with every type of store imaginable from every area on Earth. Italian salumerias and cafès in Little Italy, herbal shops and restaurants that purvey foreign delicacies in Chinatown, French brasseries in midtown, and more. Among all these places is a little restaurant on Bedford Street called Chumley’s. Unless you’re paying extra close attention, you won’t even notice it. There’s no sign or plaque. The only distinguishable feature is the antique green door, covered by a black canvas awning and windscreen. The facade fools the onlooker as to what lies behind that turquoise door.
Upon entering, you’re immediately greeted by a floral pattern wallpaper that is barely visible behind the numerous frames containing pictures of old newspapers, magazines and famous literary figures. A woman dressed in a tight fitting burgundy dress materializes from behind a door and simply says “Can I take your coat, sir?” and hands you a paper slip with a number on it. After relinquishing your coat, there is a labyrinth of patrons to maneuver through who wait eagerly by the passway for a table to open up. As you approach the entryway to the main restaurant you’re immediately greeted by a hostess wielding an iPad. She greets you and asks “Do you have reservations?” and after perusing the list of diners, she scans the floor for available tables and soon after escorts you to a table near the bar.
As you walk through the restaurant, you feel as though you’re in a time capsule. Adorning the walls are pictures and snippets of authors and articles from the past. Ernest Hemingway, Jack Kerouac, Simone de Beauvoir, these are just a few notable names that have graced the seats of Chumley’s when it was nothing more than a hole-in-the-wall. The former Chumley’s in the day of Hemingway was nothing more than a speakeasy, tucked away behind an unmarked door in a hidden courtyard at the end of an alley. It was originally a simple place; little tables lined up against the wall and a fireplace that occasionally had a log burning in it. If you were lucky, you would catch it at the “golden hour”, when the booths were empty and the place took on a new “feel” to it. It felt like a haven for creative people, writers most of all. By 2007 the place was in ruins. The former owner was slow with repairs and was about to let it fall into ruin and disappear, until a man by the name of Alessandro Borgognone became a partner in the business. As soon as he became involved in the refurbishing process, work speed doubled and they opened again a few months afterwards.
As I sat down, I saw the jackets of first edition copies lining the wall. Books that have spanned the past 80 years that I’ve never even heard of before made themselves available to me. Each cover was illuminated by its own individual light, and each had a different design. Some had vibrant greens and blues, where others had muted tones like reds and oranges against a dark background. Surrounding me were photos of old aristocratic looking men I’d never seen before. Men dressed in dark suits holding various cocktails and smoking apparati wearing serious scowls on their face. They were men who once graced the leather booths with their ideas and creativity many years ago. The atmosphere at Chumley’s however, has changed. No longer is it just a walk in bar, where drinks are cheap and seats are empty. Chumley’s has morphed into something more aristocratic. The atmosphere has dissipated, and in its place has arisen frivolity. The old booths have given way to brown leather booths and cloth covered seats. The fireplace was swapped for a typewriter perched above one of the corner booths. The food style has improved. You can still order a cheeseburger, but this one is double-stacked with caramelized onions on top and soaked in bone marrow juice. The desserts are abstract interpretations of classics: vanilla ice cream with parsnip crumble on top and black cherry ice cream sandwiches with an oreo crust wrapped in gold foil. Some things however, still remain. The original tables are hanging in the bathrooms encased in glass. Initials are carved into each of the tops in various sizes. The cocktails once popular among the “alumni” such as highballs and old fashioned still grace the menu and are available to order.
As I left Chumley’s and ventured home, I felt somehow different. Maybe it was the food or maybe it was the history behind the place, I’m not really sure. But what I do know is, even though the style has changed, Chumley’s hasn’t changed all that much. You feel almost inspired to write a book after spending time there, amongst the faces of the great literary giants. Hemingway still graces the booths, old writers still sit at the bar with a drink and a cloud of smoke over their heads, and Chumley’s is still a haven for the creative. It just goes to show you, try as you might to change the present and the future, the past will still live on.
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