When Scott Stringer was a bar guy

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It has recently come to reasonably wide attention that there is something oddly fashionable about Scott Stringer's campaign for comptroller, which has been a matter of national interest since Eliot Spitzer plunged into the race. 

After all, Stringer's press secretary is the boldface-named Audrey Gelman, who dates photographer Terry Richardson and is good friends with Lena Dunham, and he counts among his longtime supporters Scarlett Johansson. And it's funny because Stringer does not look like he belongs in their company.

("The gray-haired Stringer is short, balding, and wears rimless glasses," said a recent article in The New Republic under the headline "Moderate Chic: That Party of Lena's." "He is a middle of the line Democrat, well-liked by the Upper West Siders who are his neighbors and looks the part of the hilariously bureaucratic office he is running for, New York City comptroller.")

But he used to be a little bit of a party guy, not in the Democratic sense, but in the other one.

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One of the things that some long-time New Yorkers remember about Stringer, from way before he was Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, back even before he was an assemblyman, is his bar. Or rather, his bar-restaurant.

Stringer and four partners opened Uptown Local in 1991, when the Upper West Side was still gentrifying, and if Stringer had aspirations of one day running for citywide office, they were still in a very early form.

“Everything old is new again,” reported Newsday on August 16, 1991, in a column co-written by Mickey Carroll, now director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. “Back in the days of old Tammany, when a boss was a boss, the boss very often owned a saloon. You've heard the story: A prankster yelled at a City Hall meeting, ‘Alderman, your saloon is on fire.’ And the room emptied.”

“Anyway, they're repeating the pattern on the antiboss west side of Manhattan. Bob Ginsberg, a state Democratic committee member; Scott Stringer, who ran for the council; Jay Rabinowitz, who ran Stringer's campaign, and Al Handell, who does political printing, are starting a restaurant-bar called Uptown Local on Broadway between 97th and 98th Streets. There's a $60-a-ticket opening party next Wednesday."

Carroll left one partner out: Peter Yarrow, of Peter, Paul and Mary fame, who was also active in neighborhood politics.

At the time, Stringer was in his early 30s. In his political career to that point, he had worked for then-assemblyman Jerry Nadler, and managed the campaign of Upper West Side Democratic committeeman Bob Ginsberg, who used to own a restaurant called The Balcony.

It was through Ginsberg that the idea for a bar of Stringer’s own emerged.

After The Balcony’s landlord jacked up the rent, and Ginsberg’s restaurant lost its lease, the real-estate market cratered, and Ginsberg saw an opportunity to get his storefront back.

“So I came up with the brilliant idea of renegotiating with the landlord and trying to get the place back at a much lower rent,” he said.

By that point, there was some acrimony between Ginsberg and his former landlord, so, he said, “I set up a front group and Scott was the leader of the front group. And his dad, who was a liquor lawyer, I guess that’s not exactly the right word but that was what he did, he was involved with it.”

That scheme failed. But Stringer and his good friend Rabinowitz “were very excited about becoming owners of a restaurant,” said Ginsberg, and they found another location nearby, in the base of the Upper Westside limestone classic on Broadway, between 97th and 98th Streets, which was later home to Alouette French Bistro, since closed.

They called it Uptown Local.

“What we did is, we raised the money to buy very cheap secondhand furniture, to get our first load of liquor, to get our first week’s food,” said Ginsberg, a trial lawyer. “And we started with nothing in the bank, or very little in the bank.”

But they had a vision. According to Handell, the idea was to create a political watering hole for the Upper West Side, “Like Jimmy’s in midtown, which was the place where all the politicians would go to to schmooze and drink and eat.”

What they got was what Gail Collins, when she was at Newsday, described as “ an interesting combination of nightspot and barbecued chicken takeout counter.”

Stringer and Rabinowitz ran the place, according to Ginsberg, though Handell says it was mostly Rabinowitz. Neither Stringer nor Yarrow nor Rabinowitz would comment for this article.

But Handell recalls the establishment with some fondness. 

“It was a beautiful bar downstairs, a long beautiful wooden bar, with some tables along the wall and mirrors,” he said. “And upstairs was a normal-looking dining room with tablecloths and tables along the whole upstairs to the balcony. The good tables were at the front by the window overlooking Broadway.”

For the politically inclined, it was an occasional place to mingle.

Stringer, said Ginsberg, “would arrange for political parties. Meaning if a local club has their Christmas party, their spring party or something, they would take over the bar and pay something for it. That was one thing that Scott was very good at, and that’s how we made a little bit of money, but we had a very small amount of clientele.”

At the time, Gersh Kuntzman, now an editor at the Daily News, but then the editor of the Upper West Side Resident, would sometimes visit. He recalls Uptown Local as “a respectable bar where Upper West Side politicos, reporters, constituents and activists conducted business in the most civilized of manners: over a cold one with a handshake.”

Kuntzman says Eric Schneiderman, now the attorney general, would go there, as would David Paterson, who went on to become governor.

For while, Stringer’s name became so closely associated with the bar that The New York Times described him during his run for as Assembly as “ Scott Stringer, a 32-year-old restaurateur who was Mr. Nadler's campaign manager.”

Unfortunately, none of the partners had much in the way of restaurant or bar-management experience, including Ginsberg who, during his Balcony days, didn't run the restaurant so much as own it.

And so Uptown Local failed relatively quickly.

“It lasted one year and went out of business,” said Ginsberg. “Between one year and two years.”

But not before earning a small place in political history.

In October 1992, Democratic party leaders met to pick a candidate to succeed Stringer’s mentor, Nadler, in the state Assembly. There was some dispute over delegate counts which, wrote Collins, in Newsday, “ended with a couple of guys in a bar, overturning the results.”

Those "guys" were then Democratic Party chairman Douglas Kellner and some Stringer supporters, and the "bar" was Uptown Local, where the votes were re-tallied, and the chairman named Stringer the candidate after all.

“It is very probable that Stringer did indeed come up with a better count,” wrote Collins. “But to reverse the election in a bar? At 11 o'clock at night? Once again, we are confronted with one of the classic political questions: What in God's name were they thinking of?"

"Not the neatest process in the world," Marty Connor, Stringer’s election lawyer, told Collins.

Stringer's tenure in the Assembly outlasted his tenure as a bar-owner.

Ginsberg pins the blame for the establishment's demise on Stringer and Rabinowitz, who didn’t have much bar or restaurant management experience to speak of, and a lack of interest on the part of investors in putting in more money.

Handell was more circumspect: “Four or five young guys opened up a bar and restaurant. It lasted a few years. And it closed for lack of profitability.”

Another factor: the chef.

"He really didn't turn out to be too good, and the clientele was not impressed with the quality of the food," said Ginsberg. 

Interestingly, at least one of them did go on to achieve some bar success. Rabinowitz now owns Fourth Avenue Pub in Gowanus, and a piece of Washington Commons, in Prospect Heights.

Handell continues to do political printing. Ginsberg is an attorney. Yarrow continues to do whatever it is he does. And Stringer is running for comptroller, with the help of some very fashionable friends, against Eliot Spitzer.