Neir’s Tavern, one of the city’s oldest continuously running bars. Photo: Ambar Castillo

One of the oldest bars in New York City, nestled on a side street in Woodhaven, Queens, is easy to miss. A few years ago, it was at risk of closing down after a landlord threatened to raise the rent to unaffordable rates. Now, Neir’s Tavern is celebrating its 195th year. 

These nearly two centuries are filled with iconic memories: the Christmas scene in “Goodfellas” was filmed inside its walls and silver screen star Mae West graced the stage of what was once the ballroom. Lately, Neir’s Tavern has been making new memories — only with a more diverse crowd than in its earlier days. 

Owner Loycent Gordon isn’t who you might expect: he’s Jamaican, a firefighter, and has no other experience in the restaurant industry.

“It was more than just owning a bar and restaurant,” he said. “It was a mission to save one of America’s oldest taverns. When the mission is big enough, it just drives you.” 

The Black Jamaican immigrant saving an “old white man’s bar”

Neir’s Tavern owner Loycent Gordon at his bar. Photo courtesy of Neir’s 

Gordon bought the bar in 2009. It used to be called The Blue Pump Room, but he renamed it Neir’s Tavern in honor of the Neir family, who owned it from the 1890s to 1967. 

Customers say The Blue Pump Room was not welcoming to everyone. When it initially opened in 1829, its customers were primarily the wealthy New Yorkers who had estates in Woodhaven. It later became a haven for working-class Irish, German, and other European immigrants. By the mid-century, the clientele remained mostly white. 

Today the neighborhood is over 50% Hispanic, 17% Asian, 17% white, and about 6% Black. Gordon wanted the diversity of the neighborhood reflected in its customers. 

“We are now more representative of the whole community,” Gordon said. “What the local community looks like is what Neir’s Tavern inside looks like.” 

Gordon first introduced himself to the community at block association meetings and other community gatherings: “I went out and said, ‘yeah, this is who I am,’” Gordon said. “They said, ‘you’re a Black man, that place is a white brother place.’ And I was like, ‘yeah, but I own it now.’”

The first panel in a mural inside Neir’s Tavern chronicling the history of the bar. Photo: Ambar Castillo

The save

Gordon never planned to own a small business, especially a time-consuming one in the hospitality industry. But he was struck by the possible loss of this iconic spot. 

He heard about the bar’s financial troubles from a mentor and former employer at Bayside Sound Recording Studios, which used to operate behind Neir’s. The bar was in danger of being turned into a bodega.

“We didn’t need another [bodega],” he said. “What we needed was to hold onto some level of history and culture that you can’t get back anymore. So I decided to jump in and help and I thought it was a good opportunity as an immigrant to help save one of America’s oldest taverns.” 

Gordon, who is an FDNY lieutenant and was part of its first graduating class after September 11, had his work cut out for him. 

The bar was in disrepair: the paint was peeling, the bar counter was heavily scratched and had to be refinished, and the ugly solid front door needed to be replaced. Gordon worked with a historian to recreate the original door. The revamped door was not only a nod to its history, but it also allowed passersby to see inside the bar. This helped create a sense of openness. 

Other changes followed, like creating a menu that transformed the bar into a high-quality dining experience. One crowd favorite — and voted one of the New York Beef Council’s top 10 burgers in 2022 — is the Goodfellas burger. 

“At the end of the day, I feel we’re all Americans, and the burger represents the all-American food item that we can all rally around,” Gordon said. “No matter how many countries we’re from, I would hope that we can still say, ‘all right, let’s go have a burger.’”

Goodfellas burger at Neir’s Tavern. Photo courtesy of Neir’s Tavern

Lifting up Black history

Another customer favorite, the Wise Guy cocktail, pays tribute to both “Goodfellas” and Nathan “Nearest” Green, a Black distiller who only recently received recognition for perfecting Tennessee whiskey. The Wise Guy is made with Uncle Nearest whiskey, named in Green’s honor. It was important to Gordon to celebrate the legacy of a man born into slavery who became a master distiller and taught Jack Daniels the art of whiskey making. 

“I feel like I’m supporting that story, getting this guy the recognition that he deserves, that he couldn’t have during slavery,” Gordon said.  

He has also been uplifting the power of Black voices through jazz.

Over the past 16 months, Jazz Generation, an organization that connects jazz musicians to performance and educational opportunities,  helped him bring in more customers while also introducing new people to jazz — including Gordon himself. 

“Jazz hasn’t been my strong side, because you’re not exposed to it,” said Gordon, who grew up instead listening to roots reggae. “[But] I had an opportunity to say, ‘wow, here’s an African American art form and it’s dying and in a way, I can help to bring it to the forefront to give places and communities that don’t normally have jazz an opportunity to listen to jazz at an affordable price.’ ”

On the day Epicenter visited Neir’s Tavern, the Kelly Green Trio was playing covers of classic blues songs from artists like Etta Jones. Gordon also presented a $500 check to Jazz Generation in honor of Black History Month. Gordon is in talks with Jazz Generation to arrange for other performers to do shows at Neir’s Tavern. Meanwhile, their monthly open mic night also attracts diverse voices and storytelling formats. 

On Feb. 24, after the Kelly Green Trio’s final performance at Neir’s as part of a series for Jazz Generation, Neir’s owner Loycent Gordon presented Jazz Generation with a $500 check. Photo: Ambar Castillo

A safe place for women 

Customers who are women told us that while they had been coming here for decades, they never felt comfortable enough to come alone. And even if they did, the old space only served crackers and peanuts rather than the full menu it has now. 

Gordon wanted to make Neir’s Tavern safe for everyone, creating a menu to make it more family-friendly and hosting community events like comedy shows and writers’ groups. 

“I can remember my youth [here],” said Roberta Detmers, a Woodhaven native who used to come to Neir’s Tavern on dates in the 1960s. Now she visits Neir’s with her daughter and grandchildren to play dominoes and watch her granddaughter perform over steak and eggs and a Bloody Mary.

“You can just come and make a family with friends, even as a woman,” said Ina Henderson, who says she has often felt uneasy in other pubs. 

Henderson felt so at home at Neir’s Tavern, she leveraged her tech skills and love of historical preservation to become actively involved with an ongoing campaign: helping one of the city’s oldest bars achieve landmark status. They tried in 2016, but the request for landmark status was denied because the interior of Neir’s Tavern had too many removable fixtures and furniture that could not be regulated by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Neir’s Tavern Executive Assistant Kim Cherevas points out old photos of Neir’s Tavern and bowling alleys. Photo: Ambar Castillo 

Putting out fires

Owning a bar and working as a firefighter is stressful, especially when trying to focus on his family. It has been a juggling act.

Gordon makes it work by switching his 24-hour shift schedule with the FDNY based on what the bar needs. He also brings his family to the bar whenever possible so he can share as much time as possible with his wife and 7-year-old son.  

There are other challenges, including rent increases, which nearly led Gordon to close the bar back in 2020. But after hearing the story on a local radio station, city officials negotiated a deal with the landlord to keep the rent increases small for the duration of a new lease. The current lease is good until 2030. 

Navigating new regulations for outdoor dining is yet another ordeal. Last year, outdoor dining increased the bar’s sales by 25%. But trying to avoid fines involves “a lot more than people realize,” he said. It takes time to understand and plan to meet the new city regulations, including turf grass, hefty fees, and the legal distance between the seating and curb.   

Neir’s owner Loycent Gordon stops by the bar counter to chat with a longtime customer. Photo: Ambar Castillo

A path to 200 years

Staying connected to the community is a challenge Gordon enjoys, said Richie Salmon, a volunteer with Neir’s Tavern who helps bring charitable causes to the bar. 

Salmon is still in awe that a firefighter like Gordon chose to also “put out fires in a bar” and address greater needs in the neighborhood: “He wasn’t a waiter, waitress. He was fighting fires, and he says, ‘you know what, I’m gonna buy a bar … He’s putting out the fire to save this.”

Besides seasonal food and coat drives, Neir’s devoted a section of its space for bins to collect items for survivors of fires in the neighborhood during the pandemic. 

Small businesses [like Neir’s] have nobody backing them,” Salmon said. “They’re being backed by us.”

Gordon hopes Neir’s can make it to its 200th birthday, but it might take more than another deal with the landlord.

“Neir’s Tavern is more important than hoping that we get a lease,” Gordon said. “I would hope we can somehow own this building so that Neir’s will never be threatened to close.”

Richie Salmon, one of Neir’s volunteers, enjoying a beer. Photo: Ambar Castillo

Neir’s Tavern 

Address: 87-48 78th Street, Woodhaven, NY 11421

Contact: 718.296.0600

Hours: Monday – Thursday 2 to 11 p.m.

Friday, Saturday and Sunday 12 to 11 p.m.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.