Passing the Bar(s)

Bars, as in drinking establishments, often become historic places because of the people or events they've hosted. In New York State alone, there are many such examples.

One example is Fraunces Tavern in Manhattan. George Washington bade farewell to his troops there on Dec. 4, 1783, nine days after the last British troops left our shores. Today it remains a popular tourist restaurant-tavern spot as well as a museum.

Bars, as in the things customers lean on while sipping a drink, themselves often become historical. Take New York's Capital Region, for example. It's the longest settled (by Europeans, that is) part of the state and is so steeped in history that even its new bars have old bars.

Take the spectacular African mahogany bar that stretches nearly 50 feet through the center of Smith's restaurant in Cohoes, N.Y., just outside the capital city of Albany. Its provenance is traced back to the infamous 19th Century Tammany Hall political headquarters in New York City and has been in Smith's since the 1930s. It was brought there by old-time political power broker Mike Smith from its original site.

Tammany Hall was a political organization that sprang up after the American Revolution and wielded far-reaching power until the late 1960s. Smith's itself has been around since 1873, as pool hall, a tavern, speakeasy and family restaurant. But above all, it's been a Democratic political hangout. Step through the front door and you're immediately in a time warp -- you half-expect to see portly men in bowler hats making deals in the long, dark taproom that leads to the dining room.

Nearby, just across the Hudson River in Troy, a new establishment called Ryan's Wake was designed around a gem of a 26-foot Cuban mahogany bar that owner Chris Ryan bought at auction from the estate of the late Col. B.A. Gill, an Albany collector of historiana. Its provenance begins in the nearby little city of Amsterdam and dates to the late 1890s. It had been in steady use for decades, then went into storage for 30 years before Ryan acquired it.

Another famous New York City bar -- the leaning-on kind -- was recently rescued from the Gramercy Park Hotel in Manhattan.

New owner Ian Schrager, who has a string of East Coast Euro-chic hotels including the Hudson and the Paramount in New York, wanted to demolish the bar area. A group of Long Islanders wanted to preserve the bar itself that served guests attending Humphrey Bogart's 1926 wedding to actress Helen Mencken, so they bought it. It was reassembled and installed at the Santorini North Fork Inn in Cutchogue, smack in the heart of Long Island wine country.

Schrager, by the way, has nothing against nice bars. The Library, one of two bars in the Hudson hotel (356 West 58th St.) is a gem with its English club library theme decor, skilled bartenders and beaten-copper ice tub full of champagne splits.

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