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The Place Around the Corner
One of the things that you learn about New York, if you are here long enough, is the dichotomy between its two states; constantly changing and remaining the same. Store fronts are removed and replaced, people come and go, practices are in vogue or out. And yet, it is always New York. There is always the energy charging the city like the subway’s third rail. And there are the buildings and institutions which anchor the city to its bedrock of schist. Every neighborhood its own self-contained village of bodegas, cafes, merchants, and bars. And every inhabitant afforded their local place around the corner.
In my village, If you approach the neighborhood on 7th Avenue from the south, the Empire State Building remains in your view. As it has since being built, it stands sentinel over midtown, instantly providing your location with a glance. If you approach from the north, you look towards One World Trade. Both echoing memories which deeply resonate within the fabric of my village. I come from the west, across W. 20th street and pause on the corner to get a glimpse of the ESB, which year after year is slowly being obfuscated by new buildings. It is iconically New York and as I turn the corner I think of how it is of the same era of the place to which I am headed. My place around the corner.
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Entering Peter McManus Cafe is entering another era. A time of Tiffany glass and a thirty-cent whiskey. You enter a time when the bar was more about the people you spend time with and less about the “scene” or every game on twenty-seven screens. It is more about the connection of the moment. Oh, there are a couple of screens to watch the big game, but they are not the focus. There is a jukebox, but the music is only the background. The major player, the primary focus, is the people. It is my neighborhood’s living room.
It is the best kind of bar. One where you can be alone with your thoughts if you’d like, chat up the bartender to find out the current gossip, grab a burger, or have a quiet beer and congenial conversation with a friend. Peter McManus is what Anthony Bourdain would refer to as, and not in the way of an insult, an old-man bar. Like the pubs of Ireland, it is the village parlor. It is a place where you can enjoy a cold beer at 3PM on a Tuesday without any questions. Stay past six and you get the after-work crowd. Come before a Rangers game at Madison Square Garden and it’s a pregame tailgate. The crowds ebb and flow with the change in bartenders and the clock behind the bar, which for reasons I am not at liberty to say is always slightly off, and it accommodates them all. It’s a place anchored at either end by fireman, police, and a rotating cast of regulars. It is a place where life is lived and legends happen. It is a beautiful mosaic made of a thousand different stories told by every person who takes a seat along the bar. It is nothing if not a place that is filled with stories and echos of those who have come before. A place where every bartender has a legend to share.
There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern.
I only visit occasionally now as my group has moved on with the currents of our lives. Forced out by the pandemic, the stories are no longer my stories. The window seat, no longer my perch. Nobody any longer asks where I am on a Friday evening. But the place is still embedded in my heart. And oh, what a time it was. Sitting at Howie’s Corner with a properly poured Guinness solving the problems of the world with Dave the ad guy, Bobby the bass guitarist, Geoffrey the painter, Lance the long distance hiker, and others that spanned the creative spectrum. There are new regulars now. Someone has my old seat, on the end, by the window. Occasionally I’ll meet up with some from that class and we reminisce and banter with the staff, we are shown generosity and friendship, but we are not of the current class. We are alumni.
Anthony Bourdain always spoke of finding a bar like Peter’s. I wish I could have introduced him to it before he passed. Along with the aforementioned gum shoes and smoke eaters, it is a bar filled with ad executives, photographers, actors, writers, food industry, music producers, and everything in between. It is filled with New York. And no one, not a soul, cares who you are, or what you do, or what you have done. All, and I mean all, that they care about is that you’re not a jerk, that you can interact reasonably well with others, and that you never, ever, play Journey on the juke box.
It is a family-owned pub that cares about the village in which they exist; during the lock down period of COVID they provided free meals to those in the industry, even while they, themselves, took a hard knock. For memorial services of the NYPD and FDNY they act as a staging point beforehand and a place to remember the fallen afterwards. And they always look after their own. They are a part of that fabric which keeps the ever-changing city the same. And they are neutral ground in a city of opposites, as long as you follow the above-mentioned rules about not being a jerk.
One of my favorite legends of the place is when a local drug dealer walked into the bar one afternoon and ordered a beer. Looking down the bar he notices the detective who always jams him up and he turns to leave telling the bartender “never mind.” The detective pipes up for him to sit down and have his beer. “Out there, on the street, we’re on opposite sides and I’ll jack you up in a heartbeat. In here, we’re just two guys having a drink.” I can’t vouch for that story, but I’d like to believe it is true as that is just the kind of place the bar has been, since, forever.
One of my favorite days of the year to visit is fast approaching — St. Patrick’s Day. Which, as a New Yorker, is surprising. There are two holidays where those who live in the city blockade the doors and stay inside. Santacon, and St. Patrick’s day. Unless you live in my village. No, you don’t ever, ever, venture north of 23rd street or south of 59th. That, my friend, is no-man's-land. That area is left to the bridge and tunnel crowd. Largely underage, and extremely inebriated. But there are a few places where the day is special. And Peter McManus is one of them.
It unofficially opens early for the police and fireman marching in the parade to use as a muster point before they head out for the parade, and then after, it becomes the meetup spot to raise a glass to the Irish and to those no longer among us. It is then when it is best. Lunch time, when the bar is full of locals and before those who only see the day as a reason to travel to the city and get painfully drunk arrive. It is then, with the Guinness cascading and the Jameson’s flowing, that you can tuck in to a simple plate of corned beef, cabbage, and potatoes, accompanied by homemade soda bread and come to find some small understanding of what Peter McManus really is. It is a spot of community. It is a place to check in before an event or after one. It is a place to touch the past and realize through the traditions that even though we are constantly changing, at our core we remain the same. It is a place to enjoy the simple pleasure of good company and a properly poured pint. It is a place to enjoy life in the moment for we never know what is in store. And for me, at least, It is the place around the corner.
Corned Beef and Cabbage Recipe.
If you can’t make it to your place around the corner or to a place like PMMC on St. Patrick’s Day, below is a recipe to make the classic Irish-American feast at home. I’ve included the steps for brining your own brisket from scratch, but honestly if you have neither the time or the space, a pre-brined corned beef will work just fine.
1 tbsp allspice berries
1 tbsp mustard seeds
1 tbsp coriander seeds
1/2 tbsp red pepper flakes
2 tbsp black peppercorns
1 tbsp cloves
8 cardamom pods
6 crushed bay leaves
1 tbsp minced or grated fresh ginger
1 stick cinnamon
1 gallon of water
1 1/2 cups of kosher salt
1/2 cup of brown sugar
4 tbsp pickling spice mix
Corned Beef and Cabbage
5 lb beef brisket
1 cabbage cut into wedges
10 small red potatoes
4 3/4 cups all-purpose flour (plus more for shaping the bread)
1/4 cup white granulated sugar
1 tsp baking soda
2 cups buttermilk
1 large egg
1 tsp salt
5 tbsp unsalted butter (freeze and grate into dough)
1 cup raisins
Combine all ingredients except for the cinnamon stick, bay leaves, and ginger and toast in a frying pan over medium heat. This will only take a few minutes. Be careful not to burn the spices.
Remove from heat and empty into a mortar bowl and pestle or use a spice grinder to grind the mixture into a coarse mixture.
Add mixture to a bowl and combine with the ginger and bay leaves
In a large pot add water, salt, pickling spices, cinnamon stick, and brown sugar
Bring to a boil and then remove from heat
Bring to room temperature and then refrigerate until cold
Place brisket in a deep pan or non-reactive pot
Cover brisket with brine, ensuring that the meat is entirely covered. If brisket floats weigh down with a dish.
Refrigerate for 5 to 7 days flipping meat once a day
Rinse the brisket with cold water
Place the brisket in a large pot and cover with water
Add the remaining pickling spices and bring to a boil
Reduce to low and simmer for 3-4 hours until the corned beef is fork-tender
For the last 30 minutes add the cabbage, carrots, and red potatoes and cook until tender.
Preheat oven to 400°F.
In a bowl whisk the buttermilk and egg together until combined. Set aside.
In a large bowl combine the flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt
Add the butter to the flour and work through until a sand like texture is achieved
Add raisins to the mixture and combine
Pour in the butter milk and egg mixture and stir until combined
On a floured surface, flour hands and gently kneed the dough into a round loaf
Grease a dutch oven or cast iron skillet
Place loaf in dutch oven and score top with a knife to make an x on top
Bake for 50-60 minutes until golden brown and cooked through. If bread is browning too quickly, cover with foil.
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