In Duffy's Shamrock, a teeming downtown watering hole that has resisted change for almost four decades, the conversation is always changing. The adrenaline-crazed stock trader at your left elbow will discuss fluctuations in the NASDAQ until the place runs out of Jameson's. But if baseball's your thing, the retiree in the brown-and-yellow plaid sportcoat on your right will happily tell you about the year he saw Firpo Marberry win nineteen games for the Senators (1929), then make a case for DiMaggio over Mays. At Duffy's 72-foot-long bar, I once absorbed an hour-long instruction on the history of birdcages -- from a fellow who informed me, in a conspiratorial whisper, that he was an African gray parrot. Remain long enough in Duffy's, order sufficient drinks, and you'll not only hear it all, you'll likely say it all -- about treachery in the oilfields, how Clinton became the Casanova of the Ozarks, the price of china in Teaneck and the merits of Picasso's Blue Period versus his cubist experiments. You will also get the ball scores.
Duffy's is a meeting hall, a court of public opinion and a debating society, lubricated by booze and beer. It is everything a no-nonsense, come-one-come-all, big-city saloon should be, right down to TVs in the rafters and the sirloin tips, brown gravy and scoop of mashed potatoes on your lunch plate. If you want French food and a cloth napkin, go somewhere else. If you want a decent corned-beef sandwich and a side of coleslaw -- but quick -- and a ten-minute argument about Bubby Brister or the inconveniences of street paving, this is the place.
Don't let it get around, but Duffy's is not actually an Irish bar. It may have shamrock-shaped brass door pulls and call its Irish coffee "world-famous," but there's no photo of JFK over the mahogany. And it's owned by a couple of Montana-born brothers named Lombardi -- Ken and Frank. Their late father, Joseph, bought the place from one Bernard Duffy in 1963, when it was located at 1645 Tremont Place. Eleven years later, construction of a new office tower forced the Lombardis and their saloon one block eastward to Court Place ("a block closer to Ireland," the management boasted), where they have remained, content and successful, ever since. In 1980, Oxford-AnsCo Development Corp. tried to buy the Lombardis out for a cool $3.5 million, but they resisted this rude advance: The developer's uncashed "earnest money" check for a million bucks remains on display just inside the front door.
Since the brothers' brave holdout, virtually nothing has changed in the dark confines of this beloved institution. Oh, they took the famous blueberry custard off the menu a couple of years back because demand dropped off, and between 1986 and 1996 they actually closed the place on St. Patrick's Day: DUI liability and all that. But the manners and mores of Duffy's Shamrock remain immutable. The pensioners still drift in at 7 a.m. for a plate of scrambled eggs and a shot of whiskey. The wisecracking, speed-of-light bartenders are still mostly lifers, as are the embattled waitresses, who serve up more than 200 lunches every weekday. The baked chicken and sage dressing lunch special still goes for $4.87, a bowl of split-pea soup for $1.58, a second hard roll for 23 cents.
Best of all, you can still order dinner at Duffy's until 1:30 in the morning, seven days a week. This feature, among others, has long attracted hotel bellmen, taxi drivers, cops, writers tearing themselves away from their masterpieces, ladies of the evening, waiters, gamblers lamenting the mysteries of the point spread, jazz musicians, lawyers working late, reporters who've just filed, plumbers on call, late-shift nurses and almost any other variety of nighthawk you can think of. They come not only for the food but for the odd joke and the witty aside, for an honest drink and the throb of city life.
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