For years friends of mine who regularly travel to Paris for work (one an American) have talked of Harry’s New York Bar being their favourite of all the Harry’s. At no point had they really told me anything of the place other than it’s location and it being a great bar.
When we arrived we were greeted by a building covered in scaffolding, hiding beneath it the frontage of a gritty old school pub or American drinking hole. Stepping inside, that’s exactly what we found, not a European style “American” cocktail bar, but a low lit room covered in old dark wood panelling playing host to a wide assortment of historical items – from baseball caps from all sorts of international and military organisations, crests of some of Britain’s leading schools and universities round the back wall, plans of the Normandy invasions, and flags of US universities. It’s what I imagine The Stafford Hotel in London was channeling when designing its American Bar. We took a seat at the large bar with its old American hotdog cooking stand bolted to it, now used to store plates, and an old school bronze beer pump. The white haired, white overall adorned barman was chatting away to a group of young French regulars.
Harry’s Paris claims to have been the originator of about 10 cocktails over its long history, including that brunch classic and hangover soother, the Bloody Mary, the White Lady and the James Bond. Not to be left out of the Bellini game, it too claims to be the creator of a Bellini, the Bellini De Luxe, made from champagne, cognac, peach juice and peach liqueur.
Like Harry’s Venice, Harry’s Paris has played host to innumerable well known names, including the redoubtable Ernest Hemingway. George Gershwin drank at the bar when he lived in Paris, writing pages of An American in Paris there; fittingly there is a piano bar downstairs. But it’s not just famous living people who have been here: the fictional wonder spy that is James Bond drank at the bar as a 16 year old having seen an ad in the newspaper, so Ian Fleming tells us.
The keen jazz fans among you will have realised that Gershwin’s attendance at the bar while writing An American in Paris would have pre dated the founding of Harry’s Bar Venice by three years (1928 vs. 1931). Harry’s Paris traces its founding back to 1911 and thus lays claim to being the true original Harry’s, something that the Ciprianis refute and Harry’s Florence backs its Italian cousin in. The argument is over the issue of age versus length of time ‘Harry’s’ has been the name. Harry’s New York Bar was founded in 1911 with the simple name ‘New York Bar’. A former American jockey convinced a friend who owned a bar in New York to close it, dismantle it and ship it to Paris, where it was reconstructed and opened. Hence why the bar is so reminiscent of an historic bar you might expect to find in New York or Boston.
The bar went through a number of different owners before it was bought in 1923 by Harry MacElhone, a barman who had worked on the French Riviera, in the US, and at bars including The Savoy Hotel and Ciro’s. He is also the author of the classic cocktail book The ABC of Mixing Cocktails. Having the opportunity to buy the bar and wanting to return to Paris, he did so, and the family still own and operate it. He added ‘Harry’s’ to the name, making it ‘Harry’s New York Bar’, and it is because of the name change and the full name of the bar that it’s disputed as being the oldest Harry’s Bar, a name it is only known as colloquially. Given the prodigious number of cocktails the bar has created it seemed only right to give one of them a go and, being due at dinner an hour or so later, I went with the Bloody Mary (invented in 1921). So used to dressed Bloody Marys that balance cracked black pepper, celery salt, lime cordial and spicing with vodka and a high quality tomato juice, I was somewhat taken aback by the simple drink presented me. A large glass filled with a thin tomato juice, a good shot of vodka and the lightest of spicing, it can only be described as thin, watery and underwhelming.
One imagines that a bar that is the progenitor of a drink will be the place to get, if not the best example of the drink, one of the very best. Not so, it was disappointing to say the least. That is until it occurred to me that this was the original, the Harry’s, the unadulterated Bloody Mary, a glass of just vodka and tomato juice that reflects the style of the 1920s. It may be lacking by today’s standards, but that doesn’t mean we should denigrate it; after all it can’t be a poor version of a drink if it’s the original. You could argue that it was later rounded off and completed as a drink, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that this is the original. Why shouldn’t the bar that spawned it continue to serve it in that time-honoured manner?
Finally, we ordered two bone dry gin martini’s with a twist. What arrived were two martinis a little wetter than one would have preferred but perfectly serviceable. Harry’s New York Bar is just that, it’s a bar, pub or watering whole that serves cocktails alongside draft beer, not an American Bar in the style of the two Italian Harry’s and the historic cocktail bars of the great hotels. It’s an irresistible time capsule that is a must when in Paris; if there were to be a Paris based version of Cheers, this would be where it would be set.