A running-obsessed owner. Tons of track memorabilia. What's not to love?
This weekend, two events promise to unleash a stumbling mass of humanity into the streets of New York City. On Sunday, the NYC Half Marathon debuts a brand-new interborough course, and 22,500 runners are expected to christen the route from Brooklyn to Manhattan, finishing in Central Park. Meanwhile, on Saturday, the Feast of St. Patrick will transform Midtown into a Guinness-fueled inferno. I’m getting sentimental just thinking about it.
Given the occasion, it’s only appropriate to tout an establishment that’s long been a fixture on the New York City running and drinking scenes. Coogan’s is an Irish pub in the Washington Heights neighborhood of northern Manhattan that opened in 1985. A sign outside reads: “America’s #1 Runners’ Restaurant.” (It might also be America’s only runners’ restaurant, which is even more impressive, as far as I’m concerned.) It shares a city block with the Armory, the nation’s premier indoor track and field venue and home of the National Track and Field Hall of Fame. For years, this proximity has meant that runners make up a significant portion of the pub’s clientele—imagine a Gotham equivalent of the Eliot Lounge (the long-defunct “unofficial finish line” of the Boston Marathon). Though I was never a regular, I spent some time in Coogan’s when I lived in nearby Inwood for a year.
Heeding the call of journalistic duty (and a desire to eat mozzarella sticks and drink beer in the early afternoon), I paid Coogan’s a visit on Sunday. I sat in a booth by the bar, near a framed photograph of 1,500-meter Olympic champion Matthew Centrowitz Jr., who, on at least one occasion, has demonstrated his karaoke talents in this very spot. Not long after I sat down, a high school girls’ track team, fresh from competing at the New Balance Nationals, convened for a team lunch.
I was soon joined by Coogan’s ebullient co-owner and running enthusiast Peter Walsh, who immediately shared some thoughts about the virtues of his favorite sport.
“If you go up to Van Cortlandt Park and watch a cross-country race on a December day, you’ll see a 12-year-old kid, snot coming out of her nose, pee running down her leg, mud on her face—that’s what our future leaders look like! That’s running!” Walsh said. He proceeded with a mini anthropology lecture that’s impossible to summarize but ended with a modest assertion that “running is the basis of everything in life.”
Unsurprisingly, running is also a dominant theme of the decor at Coogan’s. Posters above the bar advertise annual editions of the Salsa, Blues, and Shamrocks 5K, a competitive local race that Coogan’s started in 1998 to “take back the streets” from neighborhood drug dealers. There are signed singlets from pro runners like Jenny Simpson and Bernard Lagat. There’s a discus that belonged to four-time Olympic gold medalist Al Oerter. In one room, every single issue of Sports Illustrated that had a track and field cover has been framed. (And it’s more than you think. I didn’t count, but I’m guessing there are at least 100 issues.)
The Coogan’s experience is a little bit like visiting a runner’s equivalent of the Hard Rock Cafe, just without the excessive branding and with better food. Most of the desserts are named after middle-distance runners. Order a Drew Hunter (the national high school record holder in the indoor mile) and you get a sundae with chocolate sauce and whipped cream. It used to be called the Alan Webb, after the first high-schooler to break the four-minute mile indoors.
As Peter Walsh tells it, Webb wasn’t pleased.
“Alan calls me up and says, ‘Hey, what the hell is this? What happened to my dessert?’” Walsh said. (As a compromise, the Alan Webb sundae remains on the menu, with the addition of chopped nuts, to distinguish it from the Drew Hunter.)
Back in January, it looked like this winter would be Coogan’s last. New York-Presbyterian Hospital, which owns the building that houses the bar, was going to raise the monthly rent by $40,000, effectively forcing the hangout to shut down. When Coogan’s announced it would soon be closing, there was a massive response from locals who didn’t want a beloved institution to be priced out of a neighborhood it had helped build. After all, Coogan’s had always abided by a “hire local” policy (Walsh: “If they can walk to work, we hire them first”) and offered a sanctuary during the 1980s and ’90s, when Washington Heights was a far more violent place than it is today. As Jim Dwyer of the Times wrote about Coogan’s in January, “Where others saw a broken neighborhood and city, they built a sprawling, homey space that erased ethnic, class, racial and religious boundaries, fully embracing and embodying the promise of New York.”
That may sound a tad wistful, but the decision to close Coogan’s clearly struck a chord with the community it had been part of for more than three decades. A petition to “Save Coogan’s” drew thousands of supporters in a few hours. It worked.
Facing a public relations nightmare, New York-Presbyterian offered Coogan’s new, more favorable terms—the details of which haven’t been made public—allowing the bar to remain open. (For a more detailed account, check out Jon Michaud’s New Yorker story.)
Until this weekend, I hadn’t visited Coogan’s in more than a year. The last time I did, there were hundreds of running shirts and singlets suspended from the ceiling. Noticing their absence, I asked Walsh if he had removed them when it seemed like the place would be closing.
“You mean my Irish laundry line?” Walsh asked. “No, it was the fire department that made us take those down. I wasn’t here that day. If I was, I would have gotten the guy up to the bar, we would have had half a bottle of whiskey, and he would have forgotten why he was here.”
At this point, we were standing near the entrance, and Walsh was greeting groups of kids in tracksuits.
The New Balance Nationals were winding down next door. Coogan’s, meanwhile, was filling up. There were Dominican and African-American families. Old Irish guys. College kids. Hospital staff. Groups of runners engaged in a post-race team meal, track spikes dangling from the back of their chairs. It felt like an old-timey idyll of what a locals’ lunch spot should look like—an advertiser’s jealous fantasy of where kids celebrate after a Little League game. In the age of turbo-gentrification, the scene felt vaguely improbable—like the very notion of a “runner’s restaurant.”
“You come here to find out what’s happening in the neighborhood,” Walsh said. “Because you’re not going to find out at Starbucks.”