Roman Lutak, Former Owner, Bids Farewell to Holiday Cocktail Lounge

thanksLauren Carol Smith The Holiday Cocktail Lounge’s shutter, days after
the bar closed.

The Holiday Cocktail Lounge had been a part of his life for 58 years — and after his father’s death, it was time to let go. Finally.

Speaking for the first time since selling the revered dive on St. Marks Place — and the five-story building that housed it — Roman Lutak expressed relief that he was, in a way, emerging from his father’s shadow and getting out of the bar business that had been in his family for four generations.

“My parents, they did this. I didn’t do it, I just happened to be along for the ride,” Mr. Lutak said over coffee on 14th Street.

Today, the new owner of the building, Robert Ehrlich, is scheduled to go before Community Board 3 and likely reveal his plans for the bar on the ground floor. Whatever they may be, he has some big shoes to fill. Stefan Lutak, who bought the bar in 1964, was as closely associated with the Holiday Cocktail Lounge as Lucyna Mickievicius is associated with her bar, Lucy’s. It was hard to imagine one existing without the other.

The Last Night At Holiday Cocktail Lounge 1Vivienne Gucwa Last night at Holiday.

Stefan was the face behind the semi-circular bar until his death in 2009. But after the death of Stefan’s wife in 1986, Roman Lutak was the man behind the scenes making sure the bar ran smoothly. And that’s the way he liked it.

“I’m the ghost,” he said. “The gentrification crew, they don’t know me.”

Mr. Lutak inherited the bar, the building, and all the headaches that came with it. Bills, expenses, frivolous lawsuits (one drunk woman sued him after burning her rear on a heating pipe in the bathroom, he said) and never-ending repairs to the apartments upstairs were a constant source of stress.

“At the end of the day, you got the Health Department, taxes keep going up — what happens is the place is making less and less and you’re working harder,” Mr. Lutak said. “And for what? To cater to people who know that the Bouncing Souls wrote a song about the bar, or that maybe Madonna wrote a song [about the bar]? Sometimes the song looks better than the thing in real life.”

IMG_0687Stephen Rex Brown Stefan Lutak’s history of the bar.

A native of the neighborhood, the constantly changing East Village had lost some of its charm. “I don’t have patience for the younger generations,” he said. “There’s a whole different sensibility to it now. I might as well be running a Bennigan’s.”

Of course, the memories aren’t all bad — how could they be? The Holiday Cocktail Lounge hosted all sorts of local legends — Stefan Lutak was on a first-name basis with W.H. Auden, and his son had his own encounter with celebrity.

On a quiet Monday or Tuesday in the late 1990s a woman and her young child walked in and ordered a drink. Just as Mr. Lutak started to stress about the liabilities of a woman drinking with her child, Joe Frazier walked in — the drink was for him. “We had a really cool conversation — about nothing,” Mr. Lutak said. “He took the time to listen, and he remembered my name.” After finishing his drink and leaving with his wife and kid, the boxing legend returned moments later with several autographed photos of himself, Mr. Lutak said. One of the photos was of Mr. Frazier with his son, who had also signed his autograph. Mr. Lutak said the photo still hangs in his home in New Jersey.

But those days are long gone and Mr. Lutak relishes the thought of retirement; no phone calls, no lawyers, and no worries. He’ll also have more time to dedicate to Zujitsu — a martial art that he said helped keep him at peace for much of his adult life. As for the new owner of 75 St. Marks, Mr. Ehrlich, Mr. Lutak had no idea what was going in the space — though he thought the semi-circular bar would stay.

“It’s to his benefit if he doesn’t mess with the formula too much,” Mr. Lutak said. “But he can do an Irish jig on the bar naked for all I care. It’s his place, I don’t have any say in it.”

Mr. Lutak was at Holiday during the final days — and on the last night he looked around and felt that it was a good time to let it go.

“When I locked that bar up I locked a lot of ghosts in there,” he said. “I want to walk away as positively as I can. The people who really knew me, who were there in the 80s and 90s, they were happy for me because they knew it was what I wanted.”

Mr. Lutak didn’t express much concern about his father’s legacy, or the legacy of the bar, which he said would eventually be lost to the history books just like everything else in the neighborhood. But he did extend thanks to all the customers throughout the years, and took comfort in the fact that Stefan Lutak remained the face of the bar, even in death.

“I didn’t have the chance to grieve him,” said Mr. Lutak of his father. “It ended the way it should — it ended with him being ‘the guy.’ Not me coming in and putting my mark on it — I didn’t want to do that.”