Obit: Rising Costs, Changing Tastes Lead to Last Call at Legendary Tavern
BY Kitty Barnes
A look at why a celebrated saloon was forced to close shop.
The Business: Restaurant and bar Founded: 1966 Closed: 1996 Primary Cause of Death: Rent hikes Secondary Cause of Death: Changing fashions in dining and drinking
In New York City, even talk is no longer cheap. Not great talk, anyway. Not since the Lion's Head closed its doors for good, on the night of October 12, 1996.
The celebrated saloon in Greenwich Village was the favorite gathering place of writers and artists for three decades. There, in the bar whose walls were covered with book jackets from works by its writer clientele, playwright Lanford Wilson sketched out his Broadway hit Burn This on paper napkins. At a table in the dining area, journalists Jack Newfield and Pete Hamill persuaded Bobby Kennedy to run for the presidency.
"It was a great place to meet and talk," says owner Mike Reardon, a longtime bar manager who bought the tavern in 1993. "Conversations that began on a Thursday, about baseball, might end the following Saturday with a long wrangle about Renaissance Italian diplomacy. For the price of a couple of beers, you could get a real education at the Head."
During the early days, hard-drinking regulars shelled out considerably more for that education. The bar, which occupied about half the space of the Lion's Head, generated virtually all the profits. By the late 1980s, however, many of the old-timers had slowed down, and the new, younger patrons grew more concerned with what was on the menu than with what was on tap. Judy and Wes Joice, the owners then, brought in a new chef, spruced up the dining area, and soon began drawing a respectable dinner crowd. But bar revenues were slipping badly, and profit margins for food are far slimmer than those for alcohol.
A series of steep rent increases added to the financial pressure: the five-year lease negotiated in 1989 raised the monthly rent from $5,000 to $8,000. Four years later the Lion's Head was in Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which was resolved only when Reardon bought the business with two partners.
Reardon set out to organize operations better. He worked with a new chef to streamline the purchase of provisions. He began serving the imported beers and better wines favored by younger customers. And he sponsored a series of special events, from fund-raisers to art openings, to attract new business.
But when the lease came up in 1994, the monthly rent jumped again, to $10,000. Monthly overhead costs ballooned to nearly $40,000. Reardon began looking for a new location.
Conditions worsened when the neighboring Circle Repertory Theater moved in 1995, taking with it the steady stream of pre- and post-theater customers. Later that year Reardon learned he had cancer. Extensive treatment proved successful, but his absence from day-to-day operations became too much for the faltering business.
"It's unusual for a New York restaurant to close after being in business so long," says Fred G. Sampson, executive vice-president of the New York City chapter of the state's restaurant association. "But New Yorkers go to the newest, 'hottest' areas, and right now those are the Upper East Side and Soho. Village restaurants rely more on local clientele. It's hard to make it if you have to meet a heavy rent."
Undaunted, Reardon wants to reopen the Lion's Head in a new location soon. "The old crowd will come back, and new friends will join us. It's too soon for this conversation to end."