Bawdy bar’s closing gives them honky-tonk blues


By Lincoln Anderson

It was last call, for real, as The Village Idiot, New York City’s original honky-tonk bar, closed its doors last weekend because of a raise in its rent in the trendy Meatpacking District.

Owner Tom McNeil opened the first Village Idiot in the East Village on First Ave. between Ninth and 10th Sts. in the early 1980s, where it had a run of 10 years. He then closed the bar and reopened it nine years ago in the former Eagle Tavern on W. 14th near Ninth Ave.

McNeil, 46, grew up in the East Village and currently lives above the bar. He said his mother was a friend of Ira Hayes, a Native American who was one of the Marines who raised the American flag at Iwo Jima in World War II, about whom Johnny Cash sang. In turn, McNeil met Cash and in his late teens followed Cash on tour across the country.

Former managers and customers have spun off versions of The Village Idiot, including Hogs & Heifers, Doc Holliday’s and Coyote Ugly. Coyote Ugly is now a chain of nine bars and Hogs & Heifers plans to open a bar in Las Vegas, McNeil noted.

“This was, in a sense, the forerunner of all the Pabst bars, if you want to call ’em,” said McNeil, in an interview a week before the place closed.

“I hate ‘dive bar.’ I rather figure it as a ‘honky tonk’ or ‘people’s bar,’ ” he said in describing the essence of The Village Idiot, a place where bartenders are just as apt to be drinking shots as the customers, and slamming the empty shot glasses down on the bar with a wham.

Although — thanks to the tabloid gossip pages — Hogs & Heifers is known for having celebrities dance on top of its bar, McNeil said The Village Idiot had its share of celebrity clientele but he chose not to publicize it.

“I had one of the girls from ‘Friends’ strip on the bar here — but I never told anyone,” he claimed. Rock bands U2 and Midnight Oil used to be regular customers in the early 1980s at The Village Idiot in the East Village. More recently, some of the cast members of “The Sopranos” were frequent patrons before the place shut last week, he said.

A competitive drinker, McNeil can only drink a pint of Guinness one way: in one swift gulp. He claims to have beaten the Guinness Book of World Records holder in a speed beer drink-off, but the details are a little blurry.

Above all, he prides himself in helping his bartenders gain confidence and grow in the job.

“My girls are friendly, still sassy, but not absurd. It’s probably my favorite part of the whole picture,” he said, regarding teaching the bartenders how to handle themselves. “I’ve got women who are doctors, forensic psychologists, graduate students or topless dancers. I’ve had male bartenders — all my shifts are assigned on sales — therefore the [male bartenders] die.”

McNeil called over one of his new bartenders, Sara, and asked her what it was that he had taught her.

“Dress hot, the less the better,” she said.

A female patron was dancing on top of the bar, while from the country jukebox wailed the refrain, “Who were you thinking of last night while I was making love to you?”

“We’ve had a lot of good times, some we actually remember,” read a banner above the bar, which told patrons to visit McNeil’s other two places, the Patriot, on Chambers St., and Yogi’s, on the Upper West Side. McNeil hopes to reopen The Village Idiot after the summer in either the East or West Village.

The Village Idiot bartenders had a last hurrah on Friday night, as bar owner Tom McNeil, right in photo at right, shared a last laugh with a pal.