America’s Best Runners’ Bar Is Closing
Coogan's was in business for 35 years but fell victim to the coronavirus pandemic
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
On Tuesday morning, Coogan’s, an Irish pub in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City that has long touted itself as “America’s #1 Runners Restaurant,” announced that it would be closing. Even in a city where, in the best of times, every other week seems to bring news of somebody’s favorite haunt shutting down, this one hurts.
“We were a place to leave behind the burdens of everyday life and, more often than not, inherit new ones when we volunteered to help a neighbor in need, a kid in search of himself, or a stranger down on his luck,” the owners wrote in a goodbye letter. “We were a place to find out you weren’t alone, but if you wanted to be, your space was sacred.”
The writing was already on the wall in mid-March, when the bar was forced to lay off its entire staff and close down indefinitely as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike other establishments that are now attempting to survive by going all-in on delivery, Coogan’s whole business model was predicated on selling booze. The bar opened in 1985, and is very much a product of the pre-UberEats economy. As co-owner Peter Walsh put it to me, “We were never set for take-out. In the ol’ days delivery, people would be robbed.”
Nonetheless, at first there was reason to be cautiously optimistic that Coogan’s might be able to weather the storm. New York-Presbyterian Hospital, which owns the building, had agreed to a temporary rent freeze. What’s more, over the last three decades, Coogan’s had acquired a ferociously loyal clientele. This was a public house in the truest sense—the kind of establishment that is increasingly rare in American life. The restaurant hosted children’s parties. The bar was open until 4 A.M. every night of the week.
In the end, however, the cost of multiple insurance policies and a hundred other smaller bills proved too much for a business that was already operating on razor-thin margins.
“Our accountant looked at the numbers and said: ‘Guys, you’re bleeding and you have no more blood,’” Walsh told me. The bar had very nearly closed in 2018, when New York-Presbyterian wanted to raise the monthly rent by $40,000. Back then, the neighborhood rallied and the hospital caved. But a pandemic can’t be swayed by public opinion.
Thanks in part to sharing a city block with the Armory—the country’s premier venue for indoor track, and the home of the National Track and Field Hall of Fame—Coogan’s had long been a cherished post-race destination for runners at every level. The bar would host an annual after-party for the Millrose Games, the Armory’s flagship meet, providing an opportunity for some of the world’s finest middle distance runners to drink too much beer and sing karaoke. A number of former Millrose champs like Ajee Wilson and Bernard Lagat were immortalized on the dessert menu. The walls were adorned with track and field paraphernalia; in one room, there was a framed copy of every single issue of Sports Illustrated with a track athlete on its cover.
Coogan’s contribution to the sport extended out into the streets of Washington Heights. In 1998, the bar started a local 5K race as an act of community outreach in what was then one of New York’s more violent neighborhoods.
“At the beginning, what we were trying to do was create a bond and get people to trust each other,” Walsh says. “We wanted the police to understand our neighborhood—and it worked. Cops on their day off would volunteer to come in to put medals on kids. There was an incredible beauty in watching that race grow. You don’t need 50 million dollars to start a social program.”
I lived in Inwood, the neighborhood that borders Washington Heights to the north, for two years when I was a graduate student, from 2008 to 2010. It was around that time that I started getting back into running, after a near decade-long hiatus. Coogan’s “Salsa, Blues & Shamrocks 5K” was the first race I ran to mark my glorious comeback. I figured I was in shape to run around 17 minutes—which was good enough to get on the podium in some of the rinky-dink races that I’d run in my hometown of Vienna, Austria. I ended up running 17:44—which was good enough for 131st place at Coogan’s. That was my introduction to the New York City running scene.
I’ve since moved to a Brooklyn neighborhood that’s about an hour from Coogan’s by subway. But I’d still occasionally stop by; in winter, my running club does Tuesday night interval workouts at the Armory, and I made a point of getting dinner and a beer at Coogan’s afterwards. The food was unpretentious, and substantially better than your typical pub fare. Most of the time, I went alone, motivated by a somewhat romanticized idea of checking in on my favorite uptown spot, even though this was mildly preposterous. I lived far away and was only there a couple times a year. But Coogan’s was that kind of place—one that inspired devotion from strangers.
Its closing signifies a sad loss for the city of New York and for the greater running community. Needless to say, it is only one of thousands of businesses that will likely succumb to the coronavirus tidal wave. In a way, the timing was fortuitous. Walsh is in his 70s, and ready to call it a career. And yet, it’s hard not to mourn the decline of an establishment that stood as a local bulwark against the forces of social atomization. No, they didn’t really do delivery. Of course they didn’t. It was a damn bar.
“I’m going to miss the heck out of Washington Heights,” Walsh told me. “And I’m going to miss the heck out of being the best track bar in the country. I mean, we had the Olympians, but we also had the high school kids. We had ‘em all.”