May 04, 2012
Text and Photos By Susan Varghese
Walking into the Den Cocktail Lounge in Inwood is like taking a step back into the Mad Men era, a time when cigarette smoke wafted in the air, everybody knew everybody, and grabbing a early drink was as common as going to the grocery store. The Den is considered a neighborhood institution and it’s approaching its 50th anniversary in September.
Every day for the past five decades, Jimmy Boyle has walked downstairs from his second-story apartment to open up shop; his customers are mostly regulars, who have long since become his family.
“I met a lot of great people through the years,” Boyle, 69, owner of the Den, said. “I’ve had 50 years [in September] over here. I guess I’ve made a lot of friendships with the neighbors. I’ve seen a lot of people grow up. I’ve served their grandfathers and great grandfathers.”
The Den Cocktail Lounge is more of a hometown bar than a fancy cocktail lounge — on any given afternoon, five or six “regulars” will be sitting at the bar, like Bob Keenan, a 22 year patron of the Den. “I’ve got to know him very well through the years,” Keenan said, sipping on a cold Budweiser. “Most people who come in are like family. Some bars you have a lot of fights and problems — that doesn’t happen here… On Saint Patrick’s Day, he bought 315 pounds of corned beef and gave it out to everyone at the bar for free. There’s always food out. Jimmy’s a great guy.”
No matter the weather the Den can always be counted on to be open, Boyle said. “During the snowstorm someone called and asked, ‘are you open?’ I said, ‘If I’m not open, nothings open!’” Despite its traditions, there are modern updates in the lounge, like multiple flat screens and a digital jukebox, while a few arcade-style games remain.
Boyle was born in the Bronx in 1942 to Irish immigrants. “My father, James Boyle, Sr., opened his first bar in 1933…then he bought my aunt’s partner out on 138th street and we were in that place for about 27 years,” Boyle recalled. “In 1962, he decided he was going to come out to Long Island and we wound up here in Inwood. My dad’s game plan in those days was that he was going to stay for a few years or so and then he was going to go out further on the Island. Unfortunately, my father passed away in 1965. I was 21 years old. My mother and me took it over. We ran it. My mom died in ’81. I’ve been running it since.”
Running the lounge has kept him busy, which is why he remains a bachelor, he joked. “I’ve never been married. Didn’t have time…” Billy Metz, a 15-year customer, said with a smile, “He’s a playboy, been one for years!” Metz added, “he’s a very good man this man. [He’s] loved by all his customers.”
The atmosphere can best be described as friendly and familiar, with no shortage of laughter. Randolph Dunn, a 20-year veteran bartender at the Den, poked fun at Boyle’s white hair and pulled out hair dye from under the bar. “I’ve been trying to convince him to dye it!”
“One time we had cops come in here for a license check,” Boyle recalled with a smirk. “The youngest person in here was 70.”
Once the jokes subsided, Dunn said, “What I like about the Den are the people… He’s [Jimmy] a great boss.”
Boyle never attended college, but he urged that people should continue their education. “I’d tell kids to get as much schooling as they could. That’s where it’s at. Even in my case, my father set me up in business, I don’t think too many people were going to be lucky like I was and get 50 years out of it. Nothing would probably last as long. I owe it all to my father.”
Years ago, there were six or seven bars in the area and now the Den is the only one standing. “Everything changes with time…the biggest problem is having people die on you. There’s nothing you can do about that.”
“You do the best you can,” Boyle said simply. “If I had to do it over, I’d do it the same way. I wish I had more years left.”
The Den is located at 205 Sheridan Boulevard in Inwood. (516) 239-9873. They open at 10:00 a.m. and close about 1:00 a.m. Depending on the customers, they stay open until 4:00 a.m.
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