07/03/2012 07:04 am ET Updated Sep 02, 2012

Set 'Em Up Somewhere Else, Joe: Why I'm Through With P.J. Clarke's

I was ten years old, during the height of the disco era, when my father first took me to the nondescript two-story building on 55th and 3rd for burgers and beverages -- beer for him, Coke for me. I didn't know anything about P.J. Clarke's, apart from what Dad had told me. The place was close to 100 years old, he said (it opened in 1884), and for decades real estate developers had wanted to raze the building and erect another of the towering steel and glass monstrosities that surrounded it. The owners, however, had refused every offer. I thought that was pretty cool. And I thought the burger, a no-nonsense affair served on a paper plate with a slice of raw onion beneath the bun and a pickle spear on the side, was delicious. To say nothing of the home fries -- no regular steak fries, crinkle-cuts, or shoestrings to be found in this joint. Greasy, a little burned, cut into large chunks and served with slivers of onion that had been cooked along with the potatoes, they were the first I'd ever had, and they remain the best.

I went to Hebrew school a few blocks away from P.J.'s, so the place became a regular Sunday lunch hangout for me and my dad. I found the place fascinating. Its long wooden bar, ancient photos of forgotten politicians and athletes masking the brick walls, surly waiters who seemed like they'd been working there since it opened, and jukebox that seemed to only play pre-rock & roll music made me feel like I was stealing a glimpse of what adulthood -- masculine adulthood -- looked like.

I've never been a stereotypical "regular" at Clarke's. I've gone months in between visits. The bartenders may have known my face, but not my name. I never got preferential treatment from the staff. Nobody would have known what I wanted if I ordered "the usual." But I've eaten and drank there at least a few hundred times over the decades. I know just where to find the picture of former New York City mayor Jimmy Walker on the wall. I know the numbers of my favorite songs on the jukebox by heart -- 0015 for Frank Sinatra's "All The Way," which is always the first song I enter, and 6110 for the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra's "Tea For Two Cha-Cha." I can picture the graffiti carved into the men's room stalls (to say nothing of the legendary 19th century urinals; Sinatra once joked that you could stand diminutive then-mayor Abe Beame in one of them). P.J. Clarke's might not know me, but I know P.J. Clarke's.

Along the way I learned the storied history of the place. Sinatra was a regular (he liked to sit at Table 20; one of the greatest pieces ever written about him takes place there). Robert Kennedy used to eat there, as did Jackie Onassis. Johnny Mercer wrote "One For My Baby" at the bar that you can still belly up to. Nat King Cole called their bacon cheeseburgers "the Cadillac of burgers;" order a Cadillac burger today and that's what you'll get. Buddy Holly proposed to his wife there on their first date in 1958. It was even featured in the Academy Award-winning 1945 film, The Lost Weekend, looking remarkably the same as it does today, minus the newly-minted i-bankers and lawyers who pack the bar three and four deep most nights. I saw my share of luminaries there, too, among them Jake LaMotta and Christopher Hitchens (oh, to have brought them together at a table for a night!). When out-of-towners asked me for a "New York place" to eat, I always recommended P.J.'s, with the legacy to help seal the deal if the burgers and home fries didn't do the job themselves.

I was there with my dad the last night of business before P.J.'s closed for renovations in 2002. The place had been sold by the longtime owners to a consortium of fat cats, who appointed Phillip A. Scotti, owner of other New York eateries, to oversee the renovations and to run it when it reopened. We assumed the worst, especially when Sidecar, a more upscale joint, opened on the building's second floor. But surprisingly, Clarke's itself seemed relatively unchanged at first -- it looked pretty much the same, it felt the same, and most importantly, the burgers and home fries tasted the same as ever.

The changes happened gradually. The waiters got younger and perkier. The menu was still written on a chalkboard, but now you were handed a laminated job as well when you sat down. The burgers were no longer just burgers, they were "Meyer Ranch grass-fed" burgers. French fries and even tater tots made it to the menu. Clarke's was no longer just a hangout, but a genuine restaurant. Soulless, vapid P.J.'s branches, which I jokingly called "P.J.I. Friday's," started opening around New York City and even in far-flung locales like Chicago and Las Vegas. My dad would still go with me occasionally at my request, but he'd long since dismissed the place as a "goddamned clip joint."

And yet, somehow, the original Clarke's still retained its essence. It had a great bartender, Doug Quinn, who mixed a mean Manhattan, and whose memory retention skills for customers and their drinks became so legendary that it was written about in the New York Times. The quality of the burgers may have slipped just a bit, and the paper plates had long been replaced by real dishes. But if the mood was right and you'd had a drink or two, you could still feel the ghosts of Sinatra and Cole and the other long-gone patrons who populated the joint when it stood under the tracks of the Third Avenue El.

The tipping point finally happened for me a couple of weekend ago. I hadn't been there in a couple of months, and it seemed like, in the interim, the heart of the place had been ripped out. The chalkboard was still on the wall, but the handwritten menu had been replaced by vinyl lettering. Among the appetizers were braised pork spring rolls with horseradish cream dipping sauce. A friend opted for the "crisp Parmesan tater tots." When asked how they were, he said, "Well, at about a dollar a tot, I couldn't really judge." The price of our Manhattans had been upped to $16. Our burgers came with -- gasp -- lettuce and tomato, the first time in three-plus decades I'd seen that. Our trusty bottle of Heinz ketchup had been replaced with Sir Kensington Gourmet Scooping Ketchup. One of our party, bless her soul, refused to use it and demanded a bottle of the old stuff. And just like that, one of New York's great saloons had become just another chain restaurant. We glumly assessed our other burgers-and-bourbon options and debated a boycott.

Any doubts we had about ending our run at P.J.'s were dispelled when we read about the unceremonious ouster of bartender Doug Quinn. Granted, the article in question only gave his side of the story. But given the management's refusal to comment on the matter, and given what we'd just experienced a few nights before, their silence spoke volumes.

I never interacted too much with Doug, apart from ordering cocktails before sitting down to dinner. But one incident stands out. It was a slow night, and whoever had gotten to the jukebox before I did had programmed what seemed like hours of Tom Petty, Dave Matthews and the like. Doug must have overheard my grumbling that I'd be on my way home by the time my songs came on. "What'd you put in?" he asked.

"Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, that sort of thing."

Doug looked around, gauged the crowd, then walked out from behind the bar, unplugged the jukebox, waited a minute and plugged it in again. He handed me a $5 bill and said, "Put your songs in again. That's the kind of music you ought to hear in this place."

The building still stands. The pictures are in the same spot. The songs on the jukebox are the same. And the burgers and home fries are still pretty damn good. But P.J. Clarke's, as I've known it and sometimes romanticized it, has ceased to exist. And that's why, after 33 years, I've darkened their door for the last time. To quote "One For My Baby," set 'em up, Joe. Just set 'em up somewhere else.