Teddy’s: Williamsburg’s Historic Bar
Gazing through the luminous 100-year-old stained glass windows at Teddy’s Bar and Grill (96 Berry St.) in the Northside of Williamsburg, it’s possible to imagine that time has stood still. The bar is in fact so old that it predates the windows by about three decades. The 130-year-old mahogany bar and tiled floor are original, adding to Teddy’s 19th-century ambiance. Opened in 1887, the bar makes the claim to be Brooklyn’s oldest continually run bar. The Brooklyn Inn (148 Hoyt St.), which claims to have opened in 1885, might dispute Teddy’s claim, but there’s no disputing that Teddy’s retains a unique 19th-century feel.
The bar was first opened by Irish proprietors, who were most likely heavy supporters of Patrick McCarren, Brooklyn’s political boss, for whom the park is named. McCarren, who lived across the street, must have used the bar as one of the bases of his political power. Interestingly, the bar was sold in 1910, the year after McCarren’s death.
The place was purchased by a Bavarian German immigrant named Peter Doelger who was one of New York’s most successful brewers. Doleger, who had started a brewery on the Lower East Side in 1859, is largely responsible for introducing lager beer into New York. The New York Sun wrote that before Doelger opened his Lower East Side brewery “lager beer, in the brewing of which he was to make a fortune, was an exotic and unappreciated drink…a mysterious German drink, as remote from most of the community as pulgue or vodka is today.”
By the 1910’s, Doelger was looking to purchase New York bars as an outlet his beers, so his establishment exclusively served Doelger’s brews. Teddy’s still displays a collection of Doelger tray’s, bottles and other artifacts, as well as the lovely stained glass windows, which still bear his name.
There is another fascinating connection that Teddy’s has to the Doelger family. The brewer’s Bavarian sister named Matilda Delkar (known as Tillie), fell in love and married “Battlin’ Jack West, a bare knuckled boxer and Greenpoint enforcer. Tillie and “ Battlin’ Jack were the parents of the most famous woman Greenpoint ever produced, Mae West who was born on Herbert Street, not far from Teddy’s.
For years, I had heard the rumor that Mae West lived upstairs over Teddy’s. With no evidence to support the claim, I did not take it too seriously, but recently I met an old time Greenpointer who told me that as a child he knew many people who recalled that Battlin Jack West tended bar at Teddy’s, so the claim of Mae West’s residence is plausible. Battlin Jack reputedly had a drinking problem and often lacked steady work, so the idea that Tillie turned to her rich brother for a place to live is quite likely.
By the 1950’s, the Northside of Williamsburg had become heavily Polish and a Polish immigrant, Teddy Prusik, bought Doelger’s and it was renamed Teddy’s and the name stuck. A bartender who worked there in the 70s told me that Teddy’s was a tough place and one of the customers who used to frequent it was Sonny Black Napolitano, the Greenpoint Mafioso, whose story is featured in the film Donny Brasco.
By 1979, Prusik had grown too old to keep running the place, so he sold it to a social worker, Felice Kirby and her partner. By the mid-1980’s Teddy’s became a magnet for artists, and creative types began moving over from Manhattan, slowly changing the working class area. A startup brewery soon opened down Berry Street from Teddy’s in 1988, and the newly-opened Brooklyn Brewery actually delivered its first case of its now internationally famous Brooklyn Lager, to Teddy’s front door.
The bar was also a meeting place for the workers of the nearby Domino Sugar Refinery and in 2001 when they began one of the longest job actions in New York City History; Teddy’s became something of a strike center.
Teddy’s can also be seen in many films and television series including “Boardwalk Empire,” “Kings of New York” and “The Good Wife.” Although time has moved on and the neighborhood around the bar has totally changed, sipping a beer and looking out through Doelger’s windows, it is easy to imagine that it hasn’t.