Sunday, July 20, 2008

Harry’s Bar

Harry's Bar has been known to Americans visiting Paris since it opened on Thankgiving Day, 1911. Located at 5, rue Daunou, in the Opera-Garnier area, it has the atmosphere of a pre-Prohibition drinking establishment. Its walls and bar are of mahogany (shipped here from NY), the ceiling is copper, and the principal decorations are dark wood shields and cloth pennants bearing the insignia of American colleges.

Harry's Bar opened 97 years ago when an American jockey, Todd Sloan, joined a NY saloon owner in converting a French bistro into an American style bar. They named it “New York Bar.” Sloan sold to a Scottish bartender named Harry MacElhone in 1923, and the place has been called Harry’s New York Bar ever since. To aid happy customers in finding their way back, Americans who spoke no French were advised to tell their taxi-driver to take them to “Sank Roo Doe Noo” (5, rue Daunou), as written on the front window, still visible today. Worked every time.

Harry's fame derives from a successful record of inventing specialty cocktails. Among the many born at Harry’s are the French 75 (gin, champagne, lemon juice, sugar), the White Lady (gin, cream, egg white, sugar), and the Sidecar (brandy, triple sec and lemon juice in a sugar-rimmed glass). These were all conceived between the world wars. Oh – not to forget the Bloody Mary (1921). More than 40 cocktails were invented here. Harry's also served the first hot dog in France, in 1925 at the bar. They are still a popular menu item, along with the club sandwich. And no one will look upon you with scorn for wearing jeans.

L to R: Bloody Mary and French 75

Clientele? Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, George Gershwin, Rita Hayworth, Jack Dempsey, Sinclair Lewis, Coco Chanel, Bill Tilden, Humphrey Bogart, Gene Kelly, Glenn Ford, Noel Coward, Knute Rockne, Thornton Wilder, Marlene Dietrich – all have passed through the swinging saloon doors at the entrance. The upright piano in the basement bar is the very one on which Gershwin first tried out themes for “An American in Paris,” exactly 80 years ago (1928).

During World War II, Mr. MacElhone shuttered the bar when the occupation began, but the Germans reopened it. Many French people who had lived in America and select German officers who had studied there drifted into Harry’s, where they enjoyed speaking English. It was the one spot in Paris where English was the language of choice.

By April, 1945, the Germans were gone and Harry was once more behind the bar. Again the bar boasted the best cocktails and the best steamed hot dogs. After Harry died in 1958, his son took over, in turn followed by his son, Duncan, a Georgetown University graduate. Harry’s Bar today enjoys a thriving business as one of the most famous bars in the world. Drinks are not cheap – a fancy cocktail will set you back about 12 Euros, but drinks made with spirits are ghastly expensive all over Paris (I sheepishly confess to paying 25 Euros for a gin and tonic at a Paris hotel bar one hot summer evening three or four years ago – when exchange rates were better; the tip-off should have been the fact that the exiled Iranian royal family occupied the hotel's entire top floor).

However, for the price of a Budweiser and a hot dog, you can soak up all the atmosphere. I recall being at Harry’s with a lady friend, whom I encouraged to order a Sidecar. “Are you kidding? That’s what my grandmother drinks!” I informed her that this drink was invented here, so the least we could do was toast her granny. My companion just rolled her eyes, but did my bidding. The next day she ran up to me and said, “You were right about Harry’s inventing the Sidecar. I checked it out on the Internet and sent my grandmother an E-mail.” It’s just too easy to score points – with a little knowledge.

A word of warning – suffering the abuse of Harry’s bar staff is part and parcel of the experience, all a part of their schtick. It’s a saloon! Unfortunately, many first-timers don’t get it and leave with a bad taste in their mouths. But I suggest you check it out for yourself. Why take my word for it? Perhaps there’s a flaw in my decades of exhaustive research at Harry’s.

Homesick for New Orleans? Harry’s Sazerac:
“Attention! Il est fouété,” advises the bar man ... (fouété = kick)

Harry’s Bar
5, rue Daunou
Métro: Opéra
Open daily, 10:30a-4:00a. Don’t ask me how I know they close at 4 am.

Make plans now to go to Paris for Thanksgiving, 2011. Harry’s will celebrate its centennial, and you’ll want to be there. Grab a travel pal and have a reunion trip.

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