Friday, Jan. 21, 2011 | 12:55 a.m.
It’s held in high esteem and regarded as one of New York City’s most famous watering holes. For more than 125 years, P.J. Clarke’s has played host to politicians, journalists, businessmen, Wall Street mega-mogul brokers, sports and Hollywood celebrities and -- they won’t admit it -- mobsters.
If only the walls of the venerable building still standing at 3rd and 55th could talk, the tales would be tall. Developers even had to build a 45-story skyscraper around and behind it to preserve the legend.
Some would say it’s the word’s most famous pub and burger joint, and it’s been dubbed “the Vatican of Saloons.” Frank Sinatra went there for his bourbon and water. Humphrey Bogart stood at the giant long bar for his scotch. Richard Harris was a regular for his double vodkas, and F. Scott Fitzgerald ordered Gin Rickeys.
P.J. Clarke’s has stood the test of time, and now here in Las Vegas, we no longer have to head to Manhattan and add it to the must-do list of a Big Apple visit. There’s an outpost at The Forum Shops at Caesars Palace, and it’s no ordinary duplicate. It’s authentic, and you can’t tell the difference between the East Coast original and here. Actually, ours is a tad better because there’s no sawdust on the floor!
P.J. Clarke’s at Caesars will, like its parent, become a powerhouse for meals for movers and shakers. Big-time contracts will get signed there, negotiations will be completed there, megabuck deals will be struck there, attorneys might well compromise with prosecutors there, and, if you get my drift, solutions will be found there for whatever problems need to be fixed.
For the first three months of operations here, my longtime friend consulting New York star chef Larry Forgione will be in charge of the authentic menu and service. Everything is identical to the 3rd Avenue saloon, with the famous hamburgers that Nat King Cole once described as “the Cadillac of Burgers.” There’s the fully loaded chili, Maine lobster rolls, Maryland jumbo crab cakes and my favorite fish and chips.
In addition to classic cocktails, the bartenders will make any cocktail any customer demands, be it the perfect gimlet, Manhattan or martini. But forget Red Bull and vodka! Was that a Rob Roy or a Gin Rickey, sir? There also are more than 20 beers.
Operating owner Phil Scott said: “Our old school bartenders serve up bourbon the right way -- no ice. Our waiters will call you by your first name and do their best to remember what you drink. You won’t find any pomegranate-infused spritzers or tropical concoctions with little umbrellas -- but we make a damned good martini. This is where men are men and women are women.”
It’s said the venerable institution played host to songwriter Johnny Mercer as he penned his “Set Em Up, Joe” lines for his Sinatra hit “ One for My Baby.” The custom-made 38-foot-long, all mahogany bar for serious drinkers cost $250,000 and was imported here from French wine Baron Philippe de Rothschild’s estate in Bordeaux. Additionally, there’s an 18-foot-long separate raw bar for shrimp, lobster, oysters and clams all served to diners standing up. The new 12,000-square-foot restaurant seats 323 people in the main dining room, 25 at the main bar area and a private dining room for an additional 180 people.
New York City subway tiles have been used with lighting from the Victorian era through to the 1940s to give it total authenticity, and the ancient jukebox still cranks out the classics of Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Etta James. Check out the restrooms -- nothing automatic here but total privacy with heavy-duty marble even when standing up!
That old-fashioned payphone with its permanent “Out of Order” sign is the same from the day the New York saloon first installed them but never let them work -- and the same with the broken cigarette vending machine. It’s never worked from Day 1. Presumably, Patrick Joseph Clarke hated machines! In addition to three New York locations, there’s a P.J. Clarke’s in Washington, D.C.
When I was showbiz editor of The Star for 10 years, our office was just 2 minutes away, so it became a regular haunt. I moved just two blocks farther away when we launched Entertainment Tonight, so P.J.’s was still home. In fact, when I went for one lunch there with my late business partner Al Masini, it wound up costing him $8 million!
I’d known Al since he created Entertainment Tonight and I was the roving global on-air reporter for three years. I was restless and wanted to develop my own show and asked Al for a pitch meeting. We went to lunch at P.J. Clarke’s, and I gave him a one-page outline for Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, which incidentally he didn’t even read. Instead, I had to tell him my idea, and he simply asked if I could get rich people to do what I got celebrities to do.
I didn’t know if I could, but I told him, “Sure.” We ordered lunch, and he asked how much it would cost to start it. I told him $8 million, gave him the budget I’d typed up, and before the soup arrived, he reached across the table, shook my hand and said I had the money. Three weeks later, I flew to Monaco to interview the royal family in their palace to shoot the very first Lifestyles segment.
Al and I were partners in other TV shows over 17 years before he retired, and we remained best of friends for another decade before he moved to Hawaii. He fought a tough battle with melanoma cancer until his death in November. You can find all our TV shows and tributes to Al, including mine, at AlMasini.com. I gave a eulogy at his memorial service just a week ago.
So the very first day that P.J. Clarke’s opened here, I had to return. It was a poignant moment with so many memories from years long ago in New York City. This time, I took my longtime TV pal Neal Ardman, who runs several cable networks, with me while he was visiting at the end of the Consumer Electronics Show. As we reminisced about our tales of P.J.’s, I told him of Al’s $8 million lunch.
Neal said we should bring Lifestyles back to life and said he’d back it, too. Decisions, decisions, but who knows? We might just do it a second time, all thanks to P.J. Clarke’s. One of a thousand deals that went down at its red-and-white checkered tablecloths.
Now go make history and create a legend for yourself!
Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.
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