The 1960s heyday of Village bar the Lion’s Head

It had an early incarnation on Hudson Street. And even past its heyday, it lingered on as a popular neighborhood bar until the taxman shut its doors in 1996 (left, during last call).

But the Lion Head’s glory days as a legendary Greenwich Village watering hole was during the 1960s.

That’s when the downstairs bar at 59 Christopher Street equally attracted literary types and longshoremen, and drinkers could rub elbows with writers, newspaper reporters, Irish folk singers, politicians, and a pre-fame Jessica Lange, who waited tables.

Pete Hamill, a writer at the New York Post in the mid-1960s, recalled the energy and excitement there in his wonderful 1994 memoir, A Drinking Life.

“In the beginning, the Head had a square three-sided bar, with dart boards on several walls and no jukebox,” he writes.

“I don’t think many New York bars ever had such a glorious mixture of newspapermen, painters, musicians, seamen, ex-communists, priests and nuns, athletes, stockbrokers, politicians, and folksingers, bound together in the leveling democracy of drink.”

“On any given night, the Clancy Brothers would take over the large round table in the back room. . . . Everybody joined in singing, drinking waterfalls of beer, emptying bottles of whiskey, full of laughter and noise and a sense that I can only describe as joy.”

The Lion’s Head has been shuttered for 21 years; in its place is the Kettle of Fish (below), another old-school Village bar that moved over from MacDougal Street.

Kettle of Fish still packs in crowds, but too many of the regulars who remember the “glorious mixture” Hamill recalls at the Lion’s Head are not with us anymore.

There are accounts like Hamill’s in many books and memoirs, but more and more of the memories of nights at the Lion’s Head are lost to the ages.

[Top photo: Chang W. Lee/New York Times; third photo: Petehamill.com]

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6 Responses to “The 1960s heyday of Village bar the Lion’s Head”

  1. Bruce Bethany Says:

    The original Lion’s Head on Hudson St. was a coffee shop. Wes Joyce, a one-time policeman, became a partner, helping to acquire its liquor license at 59 Christopher St. The Village Voice was nearby, providing a lot of journalists, along with many from the N.Y. Post such as Larry Merchant, Vic Ziegel, Hamill. et. al. Poet Joel Oppenheimer, a heavy drinker, was a regular until he, along with Pete gave up booze. One of the bartenders declared the LH as a hangout for drinkers with a writing problem.

  2. mitzanna Says:

    Kettle of Fish was on MacDougal St. not Bleecker. https://ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com/2010/01/03/jack-kerouac-at-the-kettle-of-fish-in-the-village/

  3. trilby1895 Says:

    In her book, “The Life Swap”, Nancy Weber provides a vivid portrayal of a young woman’s life in 1970s Greenwich Village around which the Lion’s Head and it’s habitues play a beguiling role. As a matter of fact, since my copy has vanished, I am going to order another and am looking forward to an excellent re-read.

  4. JT Nichols Says:

    In the 70s, some of us preferred the bar next door, 55, named after its address on Christopher St. The Lion’s Head had a sign that proclaimed it as a place for writers who drink, while 55’s sign said it was for drinkers who write..

  5. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    55 is an underrated bar. Oddly, it outlasted the Lion’s Head too.

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