The team behind Ward III — namely, Michael Neff, Kenneth McCoy, and Abdul Tabini — reopened the shuttered Rum House earlier this year. Beneath all the grit and grime of 40 years of patronage, the little Times Square piano bar in the Edison Hotel had the makings of a great cocktail lounge. McCoy gives us the lowdown on the transformation.
What was your vision for the overhaul of the Rum House?
We weren’t looking for it. We had been thinking about what we were going to do next, in terms of another bar. We were thinking of something outside of the city. This opportunity popped up in Times Square, which is the last place I thought I would own a bar. But when we saw the bones of the space, we envisioned this old New York. We had in our minds what Times Square was at one point in time. It’s funny: My dad actually did own a piano bar back in the ’80s.
What was important for you to preserve?
In all honesty, a lot of it had to go. Structurally, the wood was really amazing looking. And the copper on the bar was beautiful. There were a lot of things we found once we started cleaning the place … it was really dirty. It was very theatrical looking and that’s what we wanted to bring back. But I heard Jimmy Hoffa was buried under the carpet.
Why do you think New Yorkers have such an appetite for reviving these old spots?
Growing up in New York, I think it’s extremely important. Times Square has turned into a tourist trap. It’s like a giant mall. There’s M&M stores and it’s just fake and disgusting. I would rather it look like it did in the ’80s with all the porn and drug addicts. At least it was grungy and interesting and had some character. So, I’m hoping we’re part of a revival in Times Square.
Have you discovered some gems in the neighborhood?
Prior to having the Rum House, when I would go around here, I would go to Jimmy’s Corner. I mean, they shot Raging Bull there. It’s amazing. Or the Algonquin. Other than that, some of the hotels, like the Lambs Club, have been concentrating on their bars and I think other things are going to be opening … and bringing some glamour back to Times Square.
Where do you like to go when you’re not at your own bars?
I like to drink at Employees Only. A lot. I think it’s a great bar. If I’m in Brooklyn, I’ll go to Clover Club. I don’t get out a lot. I’m trying to change that. When I do go out, I try to go to a cocktail bar, see something new. I checked out Lani Kai and thought it was beautiful.
What’s your go-to drink at home, then?
When I’m at home, I drink whiskey. But I try not to drink at home a lot.
What are some of the key ingredients you’re starting to see these days?
I’m really excited that rye is starting to make a big comeback. And just whiskey in general. I love it. Obviously, I’m more inclined to the brown spirits. But I don’t think I’ve heard about so much rye in my life.
What’s your favorite drink on the Rum House menu?
Actually, it’s not whiskey. It’s the Rum Old Fashioned. I think it’s really good, which is surprising to me because we made it with white rum and I kept thinking it should be made with dark rum, but it’s great. Also, one of my own drinks, the Barrymore, which is Scotch with Yellow Chartreuse and some Ramazzotti amaro.
Did you come up with the name staring out at the Barrymore Theatre across the street?
Yeah, it’s right there. I figured we should have a drink named after the Barrymores, the great American theater family. That would be excluding Drew. We had someone come in and they thought we name the drink after her. I thought that was pretty funny. They said, “We don’t understand ’cause there’s no cocaine in it.”
What are you sick of seeing the bar scene?
Speakeasies. The whole little mustache, pompous bartender … I’m just sick of that whole stuffy thing. They look like they’re in a barbershop quartet. What’s funny is that’s what people think bartenders were like. They may have looked like that in pictures, but I don’t think they acted like that at all.
More on that …
I’m sick of the word “mixologist.” It’s played out. Last time I looked you were a bartender; it encompasses so much more: marriage counselor, the guy you can talk about sports with, maybe have a shot with … make a good drink, put a good song on. It’s not just about the drink, it’s about so much more. It’s about having fun. At Ward III and Rum House, it’s about people having a good time.
What do you have coming up after Rum House?
We’re always working on something new. I think everyone will be really surprised with the next one. It probably won’t be in the States. Let’s ease into the rum first … but we have stuff coming up.