Iconic bar shuts down, but fond memories will last
Around Valentine’s Day, Blues Central in Midtown announced it was closing.
Bars come and go. In recent months, the Anchor, Rumrunners, the Spenard La Mex, and karaoke hub the Wood Shed all closed shop. But the loss of Blues Central struck a deep, sad chord for me. This wasn’t just any bar. This was my bar.
Blues had a special quality. The place just felt old, in the best way. The curve of the bar mimicked a guitar’s form. Old black-and-whites on the walls showed venues long gone – the Penguin Club, the Alibi, the Union Club. Framed portraits showed bluesmen in brimmed hats and dark glasses, women with hips and big hair. Slow-spinning ceiling fans dared you to relax, chill out, slow down, man. Ghosts of musicians seemed sunk into the fabric and the lighting and the floorboards.
An impressive number of musicians crammed onto the tiny stage. With bass thumping and guitars electrifying the air, drumsticks hammered, neon washed over singers’ faces tipped back in a howl, and swinging brass horns and harmonicas flashed in the lights.
Blues was unpretentious. Bartenders were tough and pretty in an edgy way, pouring drinks cheap and strong. Weekends saw the bar swell into a dimly lit hive of music. Sweaty, swirling couples packed the small dance floor, people of all ages, all walks of life, construction workers and lawyers and office workers and taxi drivers.
Weeknights, by contrast, offered a more low-key haven. The small crowd of regulars set up camp at the far end of the bar. Quiet patrons trickled in and out. The flower salesman gamely wandered through nightly with his bucket of roses, though few ever bought one that I saw. I fondly referred to Blues as my “secret bar,” a place to step out of the daily rush.
Most of my columns are about bars and restaurants you should go to now, and it’s easy to focus on new things – trendy freshmen like Fat Ptarmigan, Rustic Goat, Crossbar and Killjoy. This column is different because it’s about a bar that’s gone. It can happen quickly, the neon “open” sign winking out into darkness.
Owner Frank Dahl had Blues Central up for sale for a long time and still, its closure came as a shock. It made the newspapers and talk radio. Websites posted photo galleries. The bartenders cried. The regulars wondered, Where will we go?
The decision to sell was bittersweet, but it was time, Dahl told me. He added, “There’s no big thing to running a restaurant. It’s just the thousand little things every day.”
During its final days of business, Blues was a zoo. Nostalgic crowds flooded the place. The regulars looked surprised by the uproar. Even the unflappable bartenders seemed weary. Management called in extra help. The kitchen intermittently closed down so staff could catch up. Even then, Blues sold out of its award-winning French dips every day – something that had never happened before.
The final night, the kitchen ran out of French dips, tater tots, halibut, cheese sticks, fresh-cut French fries and more. Taps blew as kegs ran dry. People paid $250 a pop to take home the classic photos adorning the walls. One regular shelled out $550 for the iconic neon “Blues Central” sign that served as the stage backdrop for so many years.
For its closing act, Blues hosted an epic jam session. Musicians from across the region turned out. The fans kept coming, too, no end in sight to those determined to both mourn and celebrate for one last night. People wore suits and dresses and posed for photographs.
When someone asked the doorwoman what capacity was, she airily replied, “Who cares?”
I stayed to hear a few songs, then slipped out.
I might have stayed longer. But I remembered advice my mom once gave me: “Always leave a party while you’re still having a good time.”
Blues went out on a high note. And it will be missed.