The Story Behind Pebble Bar and Its Legendary New York City Address
At the corner of Sixth Avenue and 49th Street, a slate-gray, four-story brick townhouse is nestled among towering buildings, like a pebble surrounded by boulders. Constructed in the 1870s, the house has witnessed more than 150 years of New York City history. A bar, in a variety of forms, has occupied the ground floor for nearly as long. And, at the end of February, a new spot, Pebble Bar, will continue the tradition.
Looking out the townhouse’s windows at Sixth Avenue, you can picture the area changing like a timelapse movie: First, a sea of brick townhouses, much like this one, reverberating as an elevated train clatters overhead. Then, nearly all the townhouses get torn down. An expanse of churned-up earth appears, and from it, the limestone Art Deco buildings of Rockefeller Center start sprouting up, floor after floor, reaching for the sun.
Against the odds, this house still stands today, thanks to the people behind Hurley’s, notable tenants with a long-term lease and a dedication to slinging booze for locals. Three Irish bartenders, Patrick Daly and brothers John and Daniel Hurley, opened the pub in 1892. When the Prohibition started, they survived turning the front of their pub into a flower shop, among other ventures, and the upstairs into a speakeasy accessible through an unmarked side entrance. When demolition for Rockefeller Center began in 1930, the proprietors fought eviction, and succeeded. As a result, 30 Rockefeller had to be built around the house.
Through the years and a change in hands, the watering hole became a favorite among workers from the nearby newspapers, broadcast networks, and publishing houses. It drew an eclectic cast of movers and shakers, including Jack Kerouac, Jack Paar, Ed McMahon, Howard Hughes, Henry Kissinger, John Belushi, David Letterman, and Johnny Carson, who had a personal back entrance. Hurley’s became so enmeshed with the comings and goings of NBC that the company installed a phone line so staff could conduct business calls from the bar, which served as an unofficial annex, dubbed “Studio 1-H.”
“Just as Rockefeller Center had to make room for Hurley's, Hurley's made room for the people of Rockefeller Center, becoming a favorite destination for employees of NBC, The Associated Press and Radio City Music Hall,” wrote Tina Kelley in the Times in a tribute, when the beloved establishment closed in 1999.
On Wednesday, March 2, a new chapter commences in the townhouse with the opening of Pebble Bar, by friends and veterans of New York City’s hospitality scene, Carlos Quirarte, Matt Kliegman, Noah Bernamoff, Matthew Charles, and Julian Brizzi. Among them, they’ve opened such establishments as Black Seed Bagels (including the location in Rock Center), The Smile, The Jane Hotel Ballroom, Celestine, Grand Army, and Ray’s. In the constellation of these restaurants and bars, Pebble Bar is their first venture into uptown nightlife. Picking up where Hurley’s left off, Pebble Bar aims to continue the tradition of bringing New Yorkers and the people of Rockefeller Center together to dine and imbibe, with a menu of classic cocktails, wines, and seafood-centered dishes. “It’s food that goes well with a strong drink,” Quirarte says. Think oysters, fancy popcorn, and tender vegetables.
Quirarte says he envisions Pebble Bar as an “everyday hometown bar” mixed with the atmosphere of Bar Hemingway, a historic bar located inside the Ritz Paris. “If you know me, you know I never dress up,” says the 46-year-old restauranteur, who started his career working in fashion. “I’m always in a Canadian tuxedo.” When a friend first brought him to the Ritz Paris, he fretted that he wasn’t dressed for the occasion. But once they entered the bar, despite it being in a, well, ritzy hotel, Quirartes found a comfortable and casual environment where he quickly settled in. One martini turned into a night. “I just didn’t want to leave,” Carlos recalls. He says he hopes guests feel the same warmth and ease at Pebble Bar.
Pebble Bar’s name comes from a passage in Jack Kerouac's posthumously published experimental novel, Visions of Cody. The book is composed of “sketches,” as the author called them, written in a stream-of-consciousness style. In one, the main character follows a musician into a bar — “that bar on the northeast corner of 49th and Sixth Avenue which is in a real old building that nobody ever notices because it forms the pebble at the hem of the shoe of the immense tall man which is the RCA building.” The RCA building is now known as 30 Rockefeller, and that bar, as you’ve probably pieced together, was Hurley’s, one of Kerouac's haunts.
To enter Pebble Bar, you’ll walk over a terrazzo entryway inlaid with the oblong shapes of mussel shells, stepping into the same threshold as Prohibition-era New Yorkers who slipped into Hurley’s speakeasy. Up the stairs, on the second floor, awaits a pub and a bar with an inviting vintage feel, no reservations required (and Canadian tuxedos welcome), and on the third floor, a restaurant with reserved seating. The top floor is home to Johnny’s, Pebble Bar’s private event space.
Designed by John and Christine Gachot, Pebble Bar is full of touches that reference the history of the building and the bygone eras that accompanied it, while making the atmosphere feel at once homey and wholly special. “I think that the space feels very residential, feels like you're in somebody's home,” says Kliegman, a 38-year-old life-long New Yorker who started his career working at J.P. Morgan. He and Quirarte met around 2005 and started hosting parties together, before opening their first ventures, The Smile and The Jane Ballroom. “Maybe we like places like that. The Jane, to some extent, feels like a very wealthy eccentric person's grand living room.”
When visiting Pebble Bar, keep an eye out for pleasing details. The ice cubes in the cocktails are monogrammed with the letters “PB” using a device that Quirarte says looks like a “giant pinky ring.” Built into the walls, you’ll find Ojas speakers, custom-made by Devon Turnbull, an audio engineer and streetwear designer known for building hi-fi audio gear with impeccable sound from vintage elements, including from RCA speakers. On the fourth floor, an Ojas turntable and a glossy black upright Yamaha piano bring the tunes. J.Crew, another tenant of Rockefeller Center, created the staff’s uniforms. On the walls and in nooks throughout, you’ll notice black-and-white New Yorker cartoons by Alex Gregory, as well photos of New York City street scenes from the ‘60s and ‘70s and books by authors and performers popular during Hurley’s heyday.
Like Hurley’s before it, Pebble Bar is embedded in the life of the Center. “When you're in that part of the city, it's undeniable: you are in New York,” says Quirarte. “You're standing in one of the most iconic sets of buildings. Rockefeller Center, Radio City, like this is undeniably New York… I feel like I want to stick my head out of the cab and just look up and kind of nerd out.” And, he jokes, being so close to The Rink every day, maybe he’ll finally learn to skate.
Kliegman describes the allure of opening a restaurant here this way: “It's a really exciting opportunity to plant our own flag in such a special corner of the city.”
Pebble Bar is open Sunday through Wednesday, 5pm to midnight, and Thursday through Saturday, 5pm to 2am.