Features

The cheapest bar in midtown is 100 feet below the sidewalk

By Nick Zararis

Wearing a tan checker patterned suit, Tony Valentino gently nurses a beer in a booth at Rose’s Pizza in Penn Station and glances at his watch. 

After 30 years of commuting from Hicksville everyday, Valentino is in no rush to get home from an excursion into the city on this rainy Monday. Today wasn’t a work day for the retired restaurant manager; he was in the city running errands.

“I came into the city to stop by my lawyer’s office and have lunch with my son,” Valentino said. “But, the real fun starts when I meet my friends down here for a drink.”

As the busiest train station in the United States, New York’s Penn Station serves several roles. The lower level Long Island Railroad concourse contains a bar, takeout restaurant, pharmacy and waiting room.

The biggest draws are the places to get a bite to eat, which offer food and a place to sit down amidst the hustle and grime of the main concourses. 

“I’ve been drinking beer for 65 years, and I can authoritatively say, after a long day, nothing is better,” Valentino said.

One by one, Valentino’s friends trickled into the seating area with the signature black plastic shopping bags that Rose’s gives out to rushing commuters trying to grab beer before their train.

The loyal customers who treat Rose’s like a bar use the bags to scoop ice from the beer coolers to keep their adult beverages cold while catching up on their respective days.

“I met Tony 25 years ago down here when it was just bar carts and you could actually see the tiling on the ground,” Antonio Maradona, from Hempstead said. “I get six beers down here everyday and hangout with my friends for a few hours.”

The average beer in midtown Manhattan costs seven dollars, according to TripAdvisor. Down in Penn Station, commuters in a rush can find a tall boy (26oz) for as little as four bucks. This price point allows commuters of all backgrounds to mingle like they would in a neighborhood bar.

“I’ve been down on my luck and out of a job for a while now,” a homeless man that called himself Super Mario said as he pulled a flask out of his ripped dirty sweatpants. “These guys down here are nice to me and buy me a beer and let me hang out with them a lot of the time.”

 

The MTA decided to close their final five Penn Station bar carts for a variety of reasons. First, there was the issue of operating a cash only business and keeping the individual vendors responsible. An audit of the Metro North Railroad bar cart program in 2016 revealed a widespread problem of missing money.  

Another issue an MTA executive William Pally raised during the process was the issue of selling alcohol to customers that could be getting in their car and driving home from the train station.

“The MTA should not be in the business of selling alcohol,” Pally told the New York Post. “Wait until you get home to start drinking, someone drinking on the train and then driving home is dangerous.”

As for rules and decorum, there is an expectation of responsibility when consuming alcohol on LIRR property, MTA spokesperson Aaron Donovan said.

“We allow drinking on our trains and station platforms, including Penn station,” Donovan said. “If you’re acting inappropriately, the MTA police have every right to cite you in the station.”

The consumption of alcohol on the train presents issues for the conductors and passengers on board.

“Aside from the delays and cancellations, people have to deal with rowdy and sloppy people who spill their beer all over the floor and it runs down the aisle,” Denise Johnson, a frequent rider from Massapequa, said.

Although Pally has pushed for an alcohol consumption ban on the railroad in the past, the new LIRR President, Phillip Eng, does not support the idea.

“It’s something I’ve thought about, but I realize that riders want to unwind on the way home,” Eng told the New York Times.

There were 210 customers cited for alcohol-related incidents on MTA property, including trains and stations in 2017, according to Donovan. If a customer is cited and the conductor wants them removed, police can be notified and waiting at the next station before the train arrives. In addition, MTA policy specifies the conductor only opens one door of the train at the station, so the rowdy customer can not slip away.

Even though it occasionally causes problems for the conductors and fellow passengers, the loyal commuters see drinking as part of coming home from work.

“Drinking in Penn Station and on the train on the way home has become part of the culture,” Valentino said. “Even now, I’m retired, and when I’m in the city I stop in to check in on my friends that I haven’t seen in a while.”

This circle of friends is always open to new members. Louis Rodriguez, a maintenance worker that commutes from Babylon is 40 years young than Valentino, but they met down in Rose’s pizza more than ten years ago.

“This is an open party down here for those poor souls who have to take the train home,” Rodriguez said. “I went for a job interview today to pick up a second job and now I can talk with my guys about their day. It really is a club.”