In recent years, New Yorkers have suffered the closings of several of the city’s most vaunted drinkstitutions. A sad stream of classics including Mars Bar in 2011, Bill’s Gay Nineties in 2012, the Subway Inn and Milady’s in 2014, and the Raccoon Lodge just a few weeks ago, have all been crushed under the relentless wheels of big city commerce. The latest liquid tragedy is the Campbell Apartment, which is set to conduct its last night of business Thursday night. Located inside Grand Central Station, the space first served as the office and salon of 1920s financier and railroad executive John W. Campbell. It then spent half a century in disrepair before being reincarnated as a period-authentic cocktail lounge in 1999.
Like most closures, it comes down to money, but in this case, it’s not because the owner couldn’t afford the rent hike. For nearly seven months, the lounge has been embroiled in a legal battle with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (which runs Grand Central Station) over what Mark Grossich, owner and chief executive of Hospitality Holdings, Inc., maintains was an unfair bidding process. Grossich claims that nightlife impresario Scott Gerber outbid him for the space he’s spent more than 17 years restoring and operating, and that Grossich was not given a chance to make a counter-offer. An appeal of the eviction is currently moving through the courts and no redevelopment can happen until it’s sorted out. Still, the bar must close its doors after Thursday, July 28, to wait for the final decision.
We spoke with Grossich about the appeal, the outpouring of support he’s received and the work he’s done to restore the Campbell Apartment to its original high-ceilinged, swanky luster.
Supercall: What’s the latest news on the eviction?
Mark Grossich: We actually won our first motion, but the remedy the judge recommended exposed us to a 30-day eviction notice, which the MTA executed. There is every reason to believe that once everything is said and done we may be able to return to the space. After 17 years we thought we’d be able to negotiate more before this was finalized. But it’s not over until it’s over and we’re committed to exploring every possible avenue to recalibrate this.
What do you think was behind the eviction?
The sad reality is the MTA is significantly in debt. When push came to shove, we were outbid by a quarter million dollars, which, in the scheme of a 10-year contract, is nothing. We were an amazing tenant and we grew the place significantly. I was shocked when it came down to dollars and cents.
There’s so much history inside the bar. Will that be preserved?
The new operator reportedly wants to have a much more current, club-like environment there as opposed to the historical place that we created. But the request for proposals clearly indicated that the MTA wanted [the bar] to remain the way it was because I restored much of the room. We’ve had historians recording it and the MTA recording the changes.
What’s your fondest memory of working on the Campbell Apartment?
Pulling off the recreation of the space. They were actually having a difficult time getting developers interested in the space because it was a mess. You couldn’t see the promise unless you looked really closely. Borrowing from the history was a terrific exercise. We spent time in the New York Public Library looking at menus from the 1800s, looking at the level of craftsmanship that was put into the place. The workmen were so excited about participating in something like that.
What was your approach to creating the cocktail program?
Stick to the classics. Our bestsellers are still Martinis and Manhattans and Sidecars—drinks that have withstood the challenges of time. Our basic philosophy has been: The best things endure. So we’re not quick to pick up on any trends of cocktails, whether it be unusual ingredients or otherwise.
What was the public reaction to the closure?
I’ve been surprised at the outpouring we’ve received. You’d swear we were the last bastion of the civilized world. It’s heartwarming to see the letters we’ve been getting from people. The first day the Save Campbell Apartment petition went up it received over 900 signatures.