Restaurants & Bars

Silver Swan Song

Bob Martinez | Jun 18, 200807:57 AM     4

The Silver Swan closed last Saturday. It was a pretty good restaurant and a great bar.

I first got to know the Swan in 1995 when I worked in the area. One day I was walking down east 20th street and noticed this pleasant little German restaurant. I love places like this and it was irresistible. My first visit was in the midst of a ferocious Friday night snowstorm in 1995 and I never looked back.

The food was good. If you ordered carefully it was even better. German places are rare in this town so you forgive some things.

The bar was wonderful. Their selection of German beers was first rate and the atmosphere was perfect. They had a fine crew of bartenders. One did magic tricks on Friday nights that were completely mystifying. Or maybe we just drank too much beer to figure them out. In any case, it made for a fun evening.

I began taking friends there and members of my family. There were plenty of good times and years later when some of those people had passed away whenever I had a drink at the Swan the good memories came flooding back.

Most of the time I stopped off for drinks on Saturday afternoons at around 5:00PM. A bar has it’s own distinct atmosphere depending on the time of day. On Saturday afternoons the Swan was quiet, with a few diners in the main room and a scattering of patrons at the bar. Most were regulars, people I knew well enough to make small talk with. There was always a sprinkling of people who had just discovered the place, a mixture of old and young. I watched their faces carefully and was happy that they seemed to recognize that they had found someplace special.

The years went by. In 2003 I introduced my girlfriend to the place and was hugely pleased that she understood it from the beginning. It was our clubhouse on East 20th Street. We were treated as members and we reciprocated. We got to know Mike, the owner, and Justina, the regular Saturday afternoon bartender.

New York sometimes seems like a tough place but there are so many instances where it really comes down to neighborhoods and people. The Swan was like that. On most of the Saturday afternoons when we were there we nodded pleasantly to a couple of gay men in their mid 50s seated further down the bar. At around 5:30 they were almost always joined by a woman in her early 70s, well dressed and carefully made up. They greeted her enthusiastically and she always sat between them. They treated her like royalty, catching up on her life and making a fuss over her in a way that showed an absolute and sincere interest. She just glowed. It was the highlight of her week, and a big part of their’s as well.

On most afternoons she had one drink. On special occasions she had two. In any event she never stayed longer than that and sailed off into the late afternoon happy in the knowledge that she had friends at the Swan.

A couple of years ago she stopped coming in. From a distance I heard bits of conversation that said she was ailing. Then I didn’t hear anything about her at all. I didn’t inquire further - I wanted to hold on to those memories of Saturday afternoon cocktails. In a way, I want to remember the Swan like that.

The news of the closure came suddenly. Eater reported it last Friday but the regulars had only heard about it one day earlier. The rent was about to go up exorbitantly and they couldn’t pay the increase and remain in business. We’ve heard that type of story too many times recently.

Last Saturday afternoon the Swan regulars were all there. The staff had put up festive red and white beribboned balloons which clustered on the ceiling and got pulled down by playful patrons. Mike the owner, after 16 years in business, was feeling too pissed off to show up for the farewells. I didn’t blame him - I would have done the same. We all had drinks and told stories about the old days. Email addresses were exchanged and we cursed the “new” New York that is steadily making it impossible for places like the Swan to find a niche.

As I walked out I saw the fold out chalkboard sign against the wall that usually sat in front of the place -

You seek wisdom.
We have beer.

I’ll take that beer please. Make that two.

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