If Paris is cafés and London is pubs, New York is bars. Most of the legendary Big Bagel bars have been Irish: P.J. Clarke’s, still going strong, and the now-shut Elaine’s, where Woody Allen, Jackie Onassis, and Norman Mailer partied and gossiped protected by the formidable Elaine. But for me, although a regular at the above watering holes, there’s one that stands out because it was there where I cut my teeth as a young man about town, where I met Joan Collins, Janet Leigh, and Linda Christian — and debutantes and models galore. That was Orsini’s, at 43 West 56th Street, just off Fifth Avenue.
It was owned by Armando Orsini, an Italian immigrant who changed his plebeian name to the noble one of Orsini, prompting the few in the know to point out that Armando looked far nobler than the real nobs back in Rome. He established the small-but-intimate bar-restaurant around 1953, and by the time I hit the ground running in 1956, the place was jumping. Armando’s success was due to the beautiful women he dated and who patronized the place, and the credit he extended to young people like myself whose parents eventually settled the bill. Debutantes brought their shy young dates to 56th Street knowing that no matter how expensive the evening might turn out to be, there would never be an issue about the check.
Lord Hanson met Robert Hanson’s mother Geraldine at Orsini’s. Gloria Vanderbilt met Frank Sinatra there. Celebrities chose Orsini’s because Armando — unlike the other proprietors who would ring up gossip columnists when a celebrity walked in — never allowed any of his staff near a telephone. Another rule of Armando’s was that females drinking at the bar alone could not be approached except in the most courteous manner.
The barman, Joe, was an exact lookalike of Ernest Borgnine, the actor who won an Oscar for Marty in 1955. And endeared himself to all of us night after drunken late night. All my school and college friends attended regularly and old dad happily paid the bills each month. I say happily because he also became a regular, but that’s another story altogether. Orsini’s lasted forty years and Armando left us at a ripe old age.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s October 2022 World edition.