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Sardi’s and Neary’s Bartenders Retire: A Regular Customer’s Lament

I ducked into Sardi’s on a recent Wednesday and made my way up to the second-floor bar. While the matinee lunch crowd began to fill the downstairs dining room, I slipped onto a bar stool upstairs and waited to speak with Joe, the New York City bartender who would retire in a couple of days after 55 years at the Theater District mainstay.

With all the well-deserved attention that Joe, whose full name is Josip Petrsoric, had been getting lately, I figured this would be the best time to grab a few minutes with him. He’d been the subject of a rich, history-filled profile in The New York Times, had begun a string of television interviews and had just gotten off the phone with the BBC.

“Everyone asks about the stars,” he said, referring to the many celebrities he’d encountered while expertly mixing God knows how many martinis. “How about my regular people? How about us?”

Exactly. How about us?

Joe’s departure by itself would have been cause for lamentation. But it will be followed in September by the retirement of Kevin Duffy Philzone, a bartender in the city for more than four decades, most recently at Neary’s, on East 57th Street near First Avenue, and before that Elaine’s, the still-mourned Upper East Side restaurant.

You know you’re getting old when your bartenders start retiring on you.

Good bartenders are welcome anchors in this ever-changing, once-nocturnal city — particularly for those of us who keep late hours. (I’ve been an editor at The Times for a quarter century, working mostly at night.)

It’s not just that Joe, Duffy and a few other stalwart publicans around town know to have a Heineken ready when I sidle up to the bar. They are also models of dependability.

Joe, with his smooth white hair, trademark red jacket and black bow tie, was unflappable. He routinely worked Times holiday parties, goodbye parties, promotion parties — all while maintaining his good cheer and crafting tasty Negronis and Manhattans. He kept everyone happy, while also making sure that we knew when we were nearing the limit of our party budget.

Joe was timeless and reassuring and, in a sense, he provided the longest-running show on Broadway. That “Phantom” thing, which played at the Majestic Theater across 44th Street and closed in April, lasted a mere 35 years.

I got to know Duffy more than two decades ago at Elaine’s. He was a smiling and jovial presence. I still remember the last night smoking was allowed in New York bars. At midnight, he gathered up the 11 ashtrays that were on the bar and ushered in a new era.

With his vast knowledge of sports, Duffy frequently won a weekly trivia contest run by one of the other bartenders at Elaine’s, and the Van Morrison soundtrack he played was unbeatable. (But I know you want to hear about some celebrities, about one of those famous Elaine’s parties that Duffy worked. Springsteen, Jagger, Yoko Ono, Kid Rock and a slew of other boldface names were all there.)

Looked at intellectually, Joe’s and Duffy’s decisions to retire make sense. With grown children and many years of work under their belts, Joe, 78, and Duffy, 69, were ready.

Joe planned to go back to his native Croatia to live in the home that he grew up in. Duffy, who routinely battled frustrating commutes from Long Island to work in the city, will be moving to South Carolina, where his wife has family. (He’ll miss his customers, he told me, but not the traffic.)

For regulars, it’s hard to swallow that Joe won’t be around for our next party at Sardi’s and that Duffy won’t be exchanging friendly banter with customers at Neary’s.

A couple of months before Joe retired, regulars had already started coming by for some quality time with him.

“I think we should all make a pilgrimage to Croatia at a certain point,” the actress Susanne Marley told me.

Similar sentiments have been expressed about Duffy, who assures us that his new home in the South is bigger than the one he had here.

One sign of a great bartender is the ability to make customers feel welcome, and to make them want to return.

“See you around campus,” Duffy would often say to regulars as they made their way out the door. “We’ll keep a light on in the window for you.”

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