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Great Jones Cafe alumni party for 40th anniversary

BY THE VILLAGE SUN | Last month a crowd gathered at the Bowery Electric to celebrate the 40th anniversary of a late, great bar that was like a Downtown version of “Cheers” — namely the Great Jones Cafe.

The June 8 event was presided over by Phil Hartman, a co-founder of the Two Boots Pizza chain.

Hartman and his friend Rich Kreisberg opened the Great Jones Cafe in 1983, eventually selling it to one of the place’s regulars, Jim Moffett, in 1989. Moffett and his manager, Bill Judkins, then impressively kept the watering hole flourishing for another 30 years.

Not even what Hartman dubbed the “Canadian Death Cloud,” which was gagging New York City that week, could dampen the event’s turnout. Things kicked off with a champagne toast on Great Jones Street, followed by a festive, New Orleans-style march, led by Mona’s All-Stars band, over to the Bowery Electric, just a block away.

Things kicked off with a toast followed by a New Orleans-style march. The second line formed behind Mona’s All-Stars Band. (Courtesy Phil Hartman)

Although the Great Jones Cafe had a 35-year run, the anniversary celebration was mostly about its origins. There were commemorative T-shirts, free gumbo, red beans and rice, jalapeño cornbread and Cajun martinis, as Hartman put it, “so real they were causing flashbacks.”

Donna Brodie, executive director of the Writers Room, in Noho, was part of the early-years Great Jones Cafe crowd and enjoyed the anniversary get-together. She recalled the place as starting out as a blue-collar bar but morphing into “an art bar.” But Hartman strongly disagreed, saying, “It was more sort of a no-s— bar,” albeit “popular with young creatives,” including people in film and in music who dropped by from C.B.G.B.

A high point was when Bruce Springsteen dropped in and sat a table in the late 1980s or early ’90s.

Former Great Jones Cafe dishwasher, writer Mark Kirby paid tribute to Warren Lee, on the screen, who tended bar there and was a co-founder of Empire State Soul Club. (Courtesy Phil Hartman)
Artist Rebecca Quaytman, a former waitress at the Great Jones Cafe, shared recollections of her times there. (Courtesy Phil Hartman)

As for the pub’s origin story, it was based on solid friendship. He and Kreisberg were childhood buddies growing up on Long Island who also attended Bard College, in Annandale-on-Hudson, together. Kreisberg chose to skip the anniversary due to the Canadian wildfire air pollution.

The fascination with all things New Orleans stemmed from a trip the two took there with a couple of other friends in 1982 for the March Madness college basketball tournament. They saw Michael Jordan hit the winning jump shot in the North Carolina-Georgetown title game.

“We went to the N.C.A.A. tournament in New Orleans and fell in love with it,” Hartman recalled of the southern city. “We were there when Michael Jordan hit the shot.”

Phil Hartman, right, with former Great Jones Cafe regular Tim Gempke. (Photo by The Village Sun)

Hartman was working as a screenwriter and Kreisberg as a restaurant manager when they decided to take the plunge on opening the Noho bar.

Yet, Hartman didn’t have much prior experience in the business.

“A screwdriver was the most complicated drink I ever made,” he quipped.

Not surprisingly, as Hartman tells it, the place introduced News Orleans, Cajun-style food — including blackened fish — to the Big Apple. They also did their own smoked catfish; when they made it, it would suffuse the whole place with a sweet-flavored aroma.

His daughter Camellia Hartman, a singer and violinist, is named after a famed restaurant in the Big Easy.

Phil Hartman and daughter Camellia Hartman, with some of the night’s prized gumbo. (Photo by The Village Sun)

By 1987, Hartman had started up Two Boots Pizza, as well, and within a couple of years had started to “get more into Two Boots,” as he put it. He also opened another bar back then, The Levee, at First Avenue and First Street, which ran for a while.

After the anniversary fete, Hartman sent a recap of the night in an e-mail to all:

“It was amazing to see that everyone looked exactly the same,” he said. “The band played a NOLA-flavored set, and later Connie T Empress spun Empire State Soul faves, while bar mates reunited and told tales of the old days — some with grains of truth.

“We toasted, in absentia, giants of the Jones, Rich and Bill; those who provided the amazing food, Lynn, Lisa, Al, Karen and Sue; and our indispensable co-conspirators, Hugh, Becca and especially Sharon! We cheered the couples who not only met at the Jones but decades later still endure: Eleanor and Sam, Lisa and Al, Susie and Ben, Bill and Stella, Tom and Theresa! And we celebrated the memories of fallen heroes, including Carlos de La Vega, Warren Lee, Dan Tedlie, Jamie Livingston, Kevin Rafferty and Jim Moffett. Doris’s tabletop dances were oft-remembered, and Slima took the mike to make the seemingly irrefutable claim that he holds the Cajun martini record with 10.

Former Great Jones Cafe manager Sharon Garbe, right, with next-gen helpers Becca Freeman, center, and Lola Kennedy, left. (Courtesy Phil Hartman)

“There was a lot of talk about keeping the community connected,” Hartman wrote. To that end, the plan is to use the anniversary Web site, which was loaded with vintage photos of past patrons for the event, to post news about “art openings, music gigs, births, deaths, or that you’re passing through town and need a drinking buddy.”

The next Great Jones Cafe anniversary, Hartman assured, will be “the next round number — or maybe sooner!”

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