As far back as I can remember, I wanted to be a gangster.
Well okay, maybe not a real gangster. But, I have always wanted to visit the locations where some of the greatest gangster movies and television shows were filmed. Living in New Jersey for most of my life, not only was this relatively easy to do, but practically a birthright.
I’ve read a newspaper in a bathrobe in front of Tony Soprano’s house in Caldwell, drove past Satriale’s meat market in Newark, and even sat in the booth at Holsten’s in Bloomfield where Tony (allegedly) had his final meal. I’ve visited the Corleone Compound in Staten Island, walked the streets of Brooklyn to Clemenza’s house, and even meticulously recreated his famous “leave the gun, take the cannolis” scene in Jersey City.
By the time I moved to Chicago in 2017, I’d seen just about every New Jersey and New York location imaginable, and soon began exploring the Windy City’s real-life mob history: the location of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre on Clark Street; Al Capone’s house, still standing almost exactly as it did when he lived there, in Cicero; and the alley where John Dillinger was shot in Lincoln Park.
But, upon returning to New York in the summer of 2019, I realized there was still one location I hadn’t made it to: Neir’s Tavern, the famous bar from “Goodfellas.”
History of Neir’s Tavern
Neir’s Tavern, originally known as The Blue Pump Room, opened in October 1829, across the street from the Union Course Racetrack, nearly 70 years before Queens officially became a part of New York City. Even then, it was an unabashedly working class establishment, and by the mid-1830s, the newly named Old Abbey had gained a reputation for catering to “crowds of black legs, thieves, housebreakers, and fighting men.”
When the racetrack closed down in the late 1890s, the bar was purchased by Louis Neir, who added a ballroom and one of the first bowling alleys in the country, renaming it Neir’s Social Hall. It is rumored that a brothel operated out of the upstairs boarding rooms, and that Mae West sang her first notes inside the social club.
After Neir’s death in 1929, his family took over until declining revenue forced them to sell the legendary tavern. As Neir’s struggled to find its footing at the turn of the 21st century, its days looked numbered, until Loycent Gordon, a Jamaican immigrant who became a firefighter after 9/11, purchased the bar in 2009.
“As an immigrant, I saw Neir’s could be a vehicle for me to contribute to Queens,” Gordon said at the time. “The place that gave me everything.”
In early 2020, Neirs was in danger of being lost once again, but thanks to an online campaign, an incredibly supportive community, and the help of New York City Mayor De Blasio, the historic Queens landmark was saved at the final hour, giving Neir’s the chance to see its 200th birthday, and maintain its oft-disputed title as the oldest bar in New York.
Neir’s may have been restored to its former glory, but the Woodhaven Street bar may truly have been saved by the keen eye of one of New York’s most famous directors.
Its Role in “Goodfellas”
In preparation for his legendary gangster film, “Goodfellas,” which celebrated its 30th Anniversary in September, Martin Scorsese knew he needed an authentic location as a “home away from home” for his characters. It had to look and feel like the New York of the 1970s, and seem like the kind of place you might find the real-life Henry Hill or Jimmy Burke having a hushed conversation. Back in the borough where he was born, Scorsese found just the place.
Neir’s Tavern was the perfect location, serving as the backdrop for so much of the pivotal second act of the film.
There’s the scene where Jimmy (Robert De Niro) and Henry (Ray Liotta) celebrate the success of their greatest heist, while chastising their associates for flashing too much of their newly acquired wealth.
And the one where Jimmy conveys the horror of Morrie’s fate by simply inhaling a cigarette.
Scorsese treated Neir’s like it was a character in the movie, deftly eliciting the feel and mood of the place; you feel like you’re sitting at the bar, eager to listen in on the conversation, but wary of suffering the fate of Billy Batts [Note: That scene was filmed at a different location]. Just watch that incredible scene of De Niro smoking the cigarette: at once, Neir’s is Jimmy’s kingdom and Morrie’s tomb.
It makes you wonder what it would be like to spend a few hours on one of those barstools.
Drinking with the Regulars
Like McSorley’s in Manhattan and Old Town Ale House in Chicago, Neir’s Tavern, with its green walls, tin ceiling, and old wooden barstools, is a place that dares you to ask it to change. “Go ahead,” it seems to warn you as you open the caddy-corner front door, “just try to order your fancy craft beer or Appletini.”
It’s an incredible feeling walking into any place that proudly celebrates its history, and Neir’s celebrates its nearly two-centuries-old legacy with plenty of photos from “Goodfellas,” old newspaper clippings, and period furniture.
The place looks almost identical to the scenes from the movie: there’s the bar where so many of the characters’ interactions took place; the sliding door and back room where Henry and Jimmy split up their earnings, where they learn that Tommy (Joe Pesci) is getting “made,” and where Morrie got on Jimmy’s nerves one too many times.
As the door closed behind me and I took the tavern in, it soon became clear that I was being taken in as well. One of the servers called me out instantly: “‘Goodfellas,’ right?”
I sheepishly made my way to the center of the bar where I imagined Robert DeNiro would have been sitting in that famous scene. I was greeted by a friendly bartender who was dressed like an extra in “Edward Scissorhands,” and though she told me it was only her second day, I’m pretty sure she’d been there forever.
In fact, it seemed like everyone sitting at the bar had been there that long, a half a dozen regulars straight out of central casting, a more inclusive version of the Alibi Room from “Shameless.” Over in the corner was an Hispanic, off-duty firefighter; to his left, a middle-aged African-American woman; and to my right, an older white guy you definitely didn’t want to make eye contact with.
It was surprisingly diverse, but distinctively Queens: loud voices, unique accents, and big opinions, all with a healthy undercurrent of “watch what you say.” In other words, friendly and inviting in a way that only true New Yorkers could understand.
I only stopped in for a drink and a quick look around, but I ended up staying for a lot more than that. The beer, served from an antique ice covered coil system, really did taste colder and fresher, and the conversation was infectious. We talked about work, the Yankees, the neighborhood, and when they spotted one of my tattoos, my new home city of Chicago.
A refreshing air of mutual respect, despite a world of differences, hung over the bar, its patrons more willing to argue the greatest leadoff hitters of all time than current events. They clearly all knew each other, but no one seemed like longtime friends; this was simply the place where they came to congregate after work, or perhaps in lieu of it.
As I glanced at the clock above the antique bar, I realized my time at Neir’s was coming to an end. Several new people had entered, while only a few of the regulars remained. Over in the corner, the off-duty firefighter may have barely been able to sit on his stool, but it was clear he wasn’t going anywhere.
I paid my tab, collected my things and headed to my car on 88th Avenue, enchanted with the evening’s experience. I may never have wanted to walk in the footsteps of the characters from “Goodfellas,” or suffer their dark fates, but for the previous few hours I got to do just that.
And while I know I will never be a regular, the next time I stop in for a pint at Neir’s Tavern, maybe someone will remember me and say:
“You’re gonna like this guy. He’s all right. He’s a good fella. He’s one of us.