This was my dad’s spot. He went to Elaine’s when she first opened her restaurant uptown in the Sixties, and later hung out at a place called Herb Evans, which was on the corner of 64th street and Broadway. Then, he and his gang settled on The Ginger Man, which was just down the block from Herb Evans. The Ginger Man opened in the mid-Sixties and became the place to be around Lincoln Center.
According to everyone that I’ve spoken with who was there back in those days, The Ginger Man made the best hamburgers in New York. My old man spent many afternoons at the bar in the early-to-mid Seventies, telling stories and getting drunk instead of working. He was an operator and a dreamer. At one point, he had his own phone at the bar, the only guy to pull off that stunt.
Years later, when I was ten, eleven years old, the old man would take my brother and me to the bar. My twin sister must have come too, but I don’t remember her being there. It never occured to me that there was anything suspect about a man bringing his kids to a bar. It wasn’t a seedy place. It felt sophisticated.
The place smelled grown up, salty, of olives and alcohol. The bartenders were all nice and happy to see us–one taught us how to twist a lime around the rim of our glasses. My brother and I would “get drunk” on Coca Cola. We ate the salted peanuts at the bar, and, occasionally, warm potato chips that came straight from the kitchen. We wore Ginger Man t-shirts and felt grown up being there.
My old man remained friendly with Mike O’Neal, who along with his brother, the late actor Patrick O’Neal, ran the place. Dad got sober in 1983 and lost touch with Mike. The Ginger Man eventually closed, and the old man later rekindled a relationship with Mike before O’Neal re-opened the spot as O’Neals. They remained close over the last five or six years of my dad’s life.
I went to visit Mike last month. We met on a Saturday afternoon after the matinee rush and spoke for several hours. I learned much of his story and the history of the joint. (The brothers also owned O’Neals Ballon, which was directly across the street from Lincoln Center; the last scene in “Annie Hall,” where Woody tells the joke about needing the eggs, was filmed in O’Neals, as was the pick-up scenes in “Sea of Love”). He was happy to talk about my old man who he misses. His affection for my dad was genuine.
When we were finished, Mike walked me to the door. He uses a cane now. As I went out into the cold, I looked inside and saw Mike turn around. A couple moved past me, through the front door, and I heard the man say, “This used to be The Ginger Man.”