Any Paris expat or tourist worth his/her salt has a personal acquaintance with, or at least a passing knowledge of, HARRY’S New York Bar. This inconspicuous saloon in the shadow of the Paris Opera has played host to a pantheon of celebrities and an unending stream of tourists since opening its doors 110 years ago.
A legend in its own right, the Paris Harry’s also benefits from mistaken associations with three other iconic bars with the same name; Harry’s Bar Venice, Harry’s Bar Florence, and Harry’s Bar Rome. The all-too-common assumption is that the four are somehow connected, part of a chain or under the same management. In today’s franchise culture, the misconception engendered by a common name is understandable.
While the Venice and Florence locations have a slight connection (We’ll discuss that in more detail below), the fact is that all have different founders, and uniquely different histories. All four routinely appear on lists of the World’s top cocktail bars, making a basic knowledge of each de rigueur for any self-respecting Continental tippler.
The fame of these illustrious institutions has also spawned a global string of wannabe drinking establishments from Munich to London to New York to San Diego, all with monikers of Harry’s Bar, Harry’s Bar and Grill, Harry’s Bistro, etc. This further muddies the waters for many tourists about the provenance of the HARRY’S name.
So, to set the record straight, the following is a brief tutorial titled “HARRY’S BAR 101″.
Chapter One: Chronology.
Harry’s New York Bar, Paris
Original owner: American Jockey, Tod Sloan
Noted Cocktails: Bloody Mary, Side Car, French 75
Harry’s Bar, Venice
Original owner Giuseppi Cipriani
Noted Cocktails: Bellini
Harry’s Bar, Florence
Founded 1953. At current location since 1963
Original Owner: Enrico Mariotti
Noted cocktails: Martini, Negroni, Bellini
Harry’s Bar Rome
Current Owner: the Lepore family
Noted Cocktails: Any of the Classics
Chapter Two: Individual Bio’s
HARRY’S NEW YORK BAR, Paris
First, some clarification. While this temple of tippling is commonly referred to as “Harry’s,” its real name is “Harry’s New York Bar”, which technically differentiates it from the other three spots whose true names are simply “Harry’s Bar”. The story of how its name came to be explains much about the establishment.
The story begins early in the 20th Century. Successful American thoroughbred jockey, Tod Sloan, decided to bring the look and feel of a New York City Saloon to Paris. To accomplish this, he purchased an actual 19th century New York City saloon that dated from 1849, had it dismantled, shipped, and reassembled in Paris. It opened on Thanksgiving Day, 1911. The name of the establishment: The New York Bar.
Despite the vicissitudes of the First World War, the bar stayed in business, quietly building a reputation among American “Doughboy” soldiers. With the flood of Prohibition-era Americans arriving in Paris after the war, the New York Bar’s emphasis on classic American cocktails drew a stream of tourists and celebrities that has remained constant over the past 110 years.
In 1923 Sloan’s lavish lifestyle and love of hard drinking forced him to sell the bar to his Scottish manager, Harry MacElhone (Sloan died of Cirrhosis of the liver less than a decade later). Harry added his first name to the place, and it would forever after be HARRY’S NEW YORK BAR. Harry was the driving force in making the bar the institution that it is today. One of his many marketing innovations, to provide comfort and sustenance to the American crowd, was to set up a hot dog machine on the bar, the only one in Paris. That 1925 apparatus still sits there. Another was to coach non-French-speaking American tourists to phonetically give their taxi driver the bar’s address: SANK ROO DOE NOO (Cinq Rue Daunou). When he died in 1958, his son and then his grandson and great grandson took over. It remains a family business to this day.
Between the wars Harry’s played host to names like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and George Gershwin. Legend has it that Gershwin composed much of his 1928 classic An American in Paris on the basement piano.
With the original owner’s connections to the world of horse racing, the bar was a gathering place of the racing set. It was also the refuge of the boxing crowd. The boxing gloves of 1930’s heavy weight champ, Primo Carnera, hang from the ceiling to this day. This boxing connection was an additional draw for Ernest Hemingway who was an avid amateur boxer. Harry MacElhone even functioned as Ernest’s corner man for a number of his bouts.
HARRY’S memorabilia: Primo Carnera’s boxing gloves, military insignias from around the World, signage about Harry’s IBF (International Bar Fly) Association [Buzz Buzz], and the signature Hot Dog Dispenser
The bar closed its doors during the German occupation of WWII, but with its post-war reopening a new clientele began frequenting the Saloon; English and American college kids arrived bringing the emblems of their alma maters to hang in the bar. Around the booths you will see the coats-of-arms of British public schools, and above them, the pennants of dozens of American universities.
Over the years the Harry’s celebrity list has included Knute Rockne, Sinclair Lewis, Coco Chanel, Jack Dempsey, Rita Hayworth, Humphrey Bogart, Thornton Wilder, Marlene Dietrich, Morgan Freeman, Clint Eastwood, Quentin Tarantino and the Duke of Windsor, to name just a few.
The saloon’s reputation also rests on its claim to be the originator of several classic cocktails: The Bloody Mary, Side Car, French 75 and White Lady. The authenticity of these claims is shrouded in the mystery of history but has become part of the oft-repeated lore of the establishment. Whether invented there or not, Harry’s Bloody Mary is remarkable; my wife’s standard order each time we visit. She loves the original 1924 mildly spiced recipe with simple presentation, compared to modern spicy and heavily garnished versions of the drink.
Our advice to first-time visitors: Come in the mid-afternoon when the place is almost empty. You will have time to quietly soak up the atmosphere, get acquainted with the barman, and get the “feel” of this wonderful century-old oasis.
CLICK HERE for more on this amazing electoral phenomenon:
HARRY’S BAR, Venice
The Paris Harry’s had already been in business for twenty years when Giuseppe Cipriani opened Harry’s Venice. His story goes like this:
In 1928 Giuseppe was working as a bartender at Venice’s Europa Hotel. A young American guest named Harry Pickering was on an extended stay, seeing little of Venice but seeing the bottom of numerous cocktail glasses. The dissolute young fellow had recently been disowned by his wealthy Bostonian family and was quickly running low on cash.
The kind-hearted Giuseppe lent Pickering 10,000 Lire. Pickering promptly left the Europa and Venice and was not heard from for over two years. Then one day, Harry reappeared with an envelope for Giuseppe; it contained the original 10,00 Lire, plus 40,000 Lire more. Thus was the friendship sealed and Harry suggested they use the extra money to open their own bar. Giuseppe agreed and named the place in honor of his benefactor. Opening Day was May 13th, 1931.
As they say in the restaurant business, “Location, location, location,” and Giuseppe’s choice of location for his new enterprise was perfect. Situated on the Grand Canal, a short walk from St Mark’s Square and top hotels like the Gritti Palace and the Bauer, it was a magnet for well-heeled American and European visitors. It’s livre d’or includes names like Ernest Hemingway (What great bar doesn’t?), Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini, inventor Guglielmo Marconi, Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, Jimmy Stewart, Truman Capote, Baron Philippe de Rothschild, Aristotle Onassis, Barbara Hutton, Peggy Guggenheim, Katherine Hepburn, Gary Cooper, Frank Lloyd Wright, Joe di Maggio, George Clooney, Woody Allen, and Orson Welles who was known to down a bottle or two of Dom Perignon in a single sitting. Harry’s fame was also enhanced by being mentioned in stories by novelists Evelyn Waugh and Ian Fleming.
Great bars are often the home of great cocktails and at Harry’s Venice it is the Bellini. A blend of white peach nectar and prosecco, it is said to be a 1948 collaboration between Giuseppe and fellow bartender friend, Enrico Mariotti, who would go on a few years later to open Harry’s Bar Florence. Its name was inspired by the Italian Renaissance master, Giovanni Bellini. An exhibition of Bellini’s works was on display in Venice at that time, and the hue of a saint’s robe in one of the paintings reminded the barmen of their new cocktail’s color. A pilgrimage to Harry’s for a Bellini, like a ride in a Gondola, is just one of those things that simply must be done when in Venice. Harry’s commands top dollar for the experience; last time we were there a Bellini cost roughly $20.
Besides its fame as the originator of the Bellini, Harry’s also claims to be the birthplace of a renowned dish: Carpaccio; a plate of razor-thin sliced sirloin concocted for an Italian Contessa and named for another Italian painter, Vittore Carpaccio.
With Giuseppe’s passing, his son, Arrigo (Italian for Harry), took over. His charm and business acumen continued to build the bar’s fame and eventually the Cipriani name became the emblem of an empire that included restaurants and hotels on three continents. The Italian Ministry for Cultural Affairs declared the bar a national landmark in 2001.
Sadly, with the coming of the 21st century, the company’s fortunes took a downturn. In 2007 the Cipriani’s pleaded guilty to tax evasion in the United States, and a decline in tourism caused by the 2008 financial crisis drove the company further into debt. Finally, with debts in excess of six million Euros, the bar was sold to Luxembourg-based investment group Blue Skye in 2012.
Despite new ownership, the bar still carries on and continues to base its popularity on Giuseppe’s original philosophy of “Treating people like kings and kings like people.”
CLICK HERE for an enchanting video interview with Arrigo
HARRY’S BAR, Florence
The next Harry’s Bar to arrive on the scene was founded in 1953.
A bartender named Enrico Mariotti and his partner, Raffaello Sabatini, had plans to open a place in Florence and call it the Boston Bar. But Enrico’s old pal, Giuseppe Cipriani of Harry’s Bar Venice, convinced him to call it Harry’s.
The two were friends from their days as barmen in Zurich and Venice. In fact, Enrico was involved with Giuseppe in the invention of the Bellini in 1948. So, with some coaxing by Giuseppe, and a reminder that his own name was Italian for Harry (Henry), Enrico was persuaded to call the place Harry’s Bar. The Bar opened December 4, 1953
In 1956 Enrico had the great fortune to hire a barman, Tersilio Vadorini, known as “Lio”. Lio would go on to become a legendary fixture of Harry’s Florence for over half a century. A quiet charisma, Old World charm and a winning smile endeared him to celebrities and commoners from around the world. (I had the pleasure to fall under his spell a few times back in the 80’s, 90’s and early 2000’s.) His international reputation was such that the City of San Francisco’s mayor, Diane Feinstein, awarded him the Keys to the City.
Lio Vadorini, for over 50 years, the heart and soul of Harry’s Bar Florence
For the first several years, the bar was located a few blocks away on Via del Parione but in 1963 it relocated to its present site on the banks of the Arno. This prime location near some of the city’s top hotels, its classic cocktails, and Lio’s winning ways drew stars like Burt Lancaster, Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, Roger Moore, Margot Hemingway, Franco Zeffirelli and Dustin Hoffman. International sports stars and European aristocrats have also passed through its doors.
Italian bars and cafes are as distinct in their own way as Left Bank Parisian cafes are in theirs. Each is different, yet there is something that immediately tells the visitor that he is in Italy. Harry’s Florence possesses a definite “Italian-ness” but has its own unique quality of simplified elegance. An uncluttered and refined atmosphere, cloth napkins and well-dressed servers make it a classy watering hole indeed.
It is not just a bar either. The restaurant area downstairs and the dining room upstairs provide excellent meals. One of the menu items borrowed from Harrys Venice is a delicious Carpaccio. The Florence establishment also offers a world class Bellini. Enrico did, after all, help invent the original in Venice. The Florentine version however is made from yellow peaches vs white peaches used at Harry’s Venice.
Two other cocktails are standouts here: The Negroni and Harry’s signature Martini.
The Negroni has a noteworthy history with the city of Florence. It originated at the nearby Caffè Giacosa in 1920. A regular at the Giacosa, Count Camillo Negroni, requested that a little Gin be added to his usual Americano Cocktail (Compari and Sweet Vermouth). The drink caught on and immortalized the Florentine aristocrat. Harry’s Florence perpetuates the legend with a perfectly proportioned Negroni of its own.
The Harry’s Martini is a variation on the classic, being served in small glasses rather than the traditional stemmed Martini glass. It is served fairly dry; a ratio of 10 to 1, Gin to Vermouth, with a twist of lemon. This reinterpreted drink was awarded Best Cocktail in the World by the Martini Cocktail Review a few years ago.
In 2016, Harry’s Florence was added to the official list of Italy’s Historic Places.
In 2021 a joint venture with neighboring deluxe hotel, the Villa Medici, has added a garden locale called Harry’s Bar The Garden. It offers an outdoor setting, small plates, and sandwiches. While intriguing, the purist in me still prefers to sip my Negroni at the original spot overlooking the Arno.
A Harry’s Clone in California:
I mentioned at the beginning of this article that a string of Harry’s Bar imitators sprang up across the globe. One in particular was noteworthy; Harry’s Bar & American Grill in the Century City quarter of Los Angeles.
Opened in 1972, The place was an EXACT replica of Harry’s Florence, down to the last detail. It attracted a tony crowd from neighboring Beverly Hills, along with struggling 1980’s yuppies like yours truly. When I could not afford a trip to Florence, I could afford an occasional dinner at the Century City Harry’s. The place was most famous for sponsoring the annual Ernest Hemmingway Parody Contest. The entrant who could write “one really good page of really bad Hemingway” would win a trip to Italy and dinner at the original Harry’s Bar in Florence. Over the years judges included Jack Hemingway, the author’s son, and none other than Lio Vadorini.
Sadly, in August of 2002 the restaurant was closed and demolished to make way for a new high rise office complex.
HARRY’S BAR Rome
The fourth Musketeer in our array of eponymous drinking establishments is synonymous with the glory days of 1960’s Rome and its street of dreams, the Via Veneto.
Post WWII Italy was coming back into its own by the late 1950’s. The Italian movie industry in particular was experiencing a Renaissance. The massive Roman movie studio, Cinecittà (AKA Hollywood on the Tiber), was attracting stars and directors from both sides of the Atlantic. The highlight of this cinematic boom was the classic 1960 Federico Fellini film, La Dolce Vita. The film’s use of Via Veneto and Harry’s as backdrops made them the epicenter for the swinging era of the 1960’s where celebrities and jetsetters lived their own glamorous and decadent version of La Dolce Vita (The Sweet Life).
The site was originally a tearoom dating from 1918, but in 1959 new owners converted it into a bar/restaurant. With the growing fame of the Venice and Florence Harrys, what better name to call it than HARRY’S BAR ROME?
Their timing was perfect to ride the wave of Dolce Vita that swept the Via Veneto. European celebs like Sophia Loren, Anita Ekberg, Ingrid Bergman, Jean Paul Belmondo and Federico Fellini rubbed elbows with American stars like Ava Gardner, Lana Turner, Marlon Brando, and Audrey Hepburn. Frank Sinatra was once famously seen playing the Harry’s baby grand piano late into the evening during this Camelot era.
Elegance was and is the watchword at Harry’s Rome. Posh décor, sedate service, and excellent cocktails and cuisine attracted and kept the jet set who resided at neighboring high-end hotels like the Excelsior, the Hassler, and Hotel Eden. And in those days a pack of Paparazzi was always lurking near the entrance to catch the latest sightings of stars and aristocrats.
The Swinging Sixties: Los Angeles had the Sunset Strip, London had Carnaby Street, and Rome had the Via Veneto. But the Sixties and the glory days of all these locales have long since passed. In recent years, the once stylish Via Veneto has become a bit tawdry and unkempt. Some of its grand hotels and designer boutiques have closed. But perched safely at the top of the street, HARRY’S continues, as it always has, to provide a haven for the wealthy, the famous, and the nostalgic.
CHAPTER THREE: The AMERICAN BARS of Europe
While we are clearing up the origins of these famous bars, it might be good to also clarify a term that is aptly applied to them, and a string of other well-known spots across the Continent.
Applying the name AMERICAN BAR to a drinking establishment in Europe denotes nothing about its founding or ownership, nor does it indicate the nationality of its clientele. The designation is based solely on the type of drink served at a place; specifically, American-style cocktails.
Prior to the turn of the 20th century Europe’s alcohol service consisted primarily of wine and beer, or unimaginative servings of distilled spirits like brandy, or Scotch Whiskey. It was not until the early 1900’s that the influx of American tourists began requesting the cocktails they enjoyed at home. Savvy barmen quickly learned how to make beverages like the Martini, the Manhattan, and the Old Fashion. This not only endeared them to their Yankee customers, but American-style cocktails also caught on with the locals.
In order to promote this new trend, establishments began adding “American Bar” to their name and signage. When the next generation of American tourists began arriving after WWI, they mistook the designation as an indication of American ownership or patronage, and thus the confusion was institutionalized.
Some of Europe’s great watering holes bear the title of American Bar. Probably most famous, and perhaps oldest, is the uber-posh American Bar at London’s Savoy Hotel. Several others vie for the title of oldest; our own Harry’s New York Bar (1911) claims to be the oldest cocktail bar in Europe. The Americky Bar in Prague’s Municipal Hall is the oldest in Prague and claims to be the second oldest in Europe, and the Loos American Bar in Vienna dates from 1908. A pilgrimage to any and all of these is highly recommended.
You do not go to any of the Harrys to watch a football game, listen to loud music, or look for romantic encounters (Although that does occasionally occur). You go instead to absorb the character of each place. Harry’s New York Bar is an old-school American saloon with a patina of Parisian charm. Harry’s Venice is small, elegantly plain, and as Italian as old men playing Bocce. Harry’s Florence is understated and tastefully refined, and Harry’s Rome is borderline opulent. Each is different but all possess a palpable air of history, celebrity, and timelessness. Each is a refuge of that vanishing quality known as CLASS, and all pour marvelous classic cocktails, which is, after all, the reason we go in the first place.
SANK ROO DOE NOO – 5 rue Daunou, 75002 PARIS