A Washington Heights Institution Marks 30 Years in Business 

Co-owner Peter Walsh in front of Coogan's Restaurant (Photo by Gregg McQueen via Manhattan Times)

Co-owner Peter Walsh in front of Coogan’s Restaurant (Photo by Gregg McQueen via Manhattan Times)

Peter Walsh clearly remembers the reaction he got more than 30 years ago when he would say he planned to open a restaurant and pub in Washington Heights.

“People told us, ‘you’re crazy for opening a business there,'” Walsh recalled. “Nobody wanted to come up to this neighborhood – it was the most dangerous in New York City.”

When Walsh and business partner Dave Hunt built Coogan’s Restaurant out of four vacant stores on 169th and Broadway in 1985, the odds seemed stacked against them, as Washington Heights was besieged by crime and drugs. Undeterred, the men were intent on running a safe oasis in the neighborhood, where patrons from any walk of life would feel welcomed.

“A lot of establishments judge the customer when they walk through the door,” said Hunt. “We make no preconceived judgments on anyone.”

For three decades, Coogan’s has been as much a community center as a pub – a retreat where people from all ethnicities can raise a glass, community events and film shoots are staged, and local politicians break bread and clinch deals.

And the discourse, usually led by the affable Walsh, flows freely.

“We’ve always run a safe, joyful, conversational place,” stated Walsh. “People would have disagreements, but it always seemed more like a discussion and not an argument.”

Coogan’s serves an average of 400 meals per day, and pours around a quarter of a million beers per year, said Walsh. It’s also a busy event space, hosting more than 200 community affairs annually. The restaurant’s name is a nod to nearby Coogan’s Bluff, a steep hill that rises above the Harlem River.

Walsh, a former musician and Army veteran, and Hunt, an Inwood native and ex-bartender, serve as the establishment’s friendly greeters and de facto public faces. A third partner, Tess McDade, works behind the scenes handling business matters.

Both Walsh and Hunt had restaurant experience prior to opening Coogan’s – Hunt spent time as a bar owner, while Walsh owned a restaurant downtown, which he sold in 1980, using the proceeds to help start Coogan’s.

The men purchased the 6,000-square-foot, ground floor property at 4015 Broadway in 1984 for $210,000.

Since then, property values in Washington Heights have skyrocketed – in March, a 900-foot retail space just north of the restaurant, about one-seventh the size of Coogan’s, was placed on the market for $250,000.

And the entire building housing the restaurant, which includes 39 residential units, is currently valued at more than $11.5 million, according to PropertyShark.com.

Politicians, police, firefighters, and hospital staff

After opening in 1985, Coogan’s soon became a popular haunt for police officers and firefighters, as well as employees and visitors of nearby New York-Presbyterian Hospital.

Walsh used the pub’s back room to present plays and art shows, which helped boost business in the early days.

Coogan’s was also frequented by elected officials, especially Hispanic politicians that rose to prominence in northern Manhattan. One local legislator could walk over to another and hold an informal chat during dinner, said Walsh.

“Deals got done here over the years,” he remarked.

In his book “Crossing Broadway: Washington Heights and the Promise of New York City,” historian Robert Snyder acknowledged the multicultural atmosphere of Coogan’s, calling the restaurant “one of the most amiably integrated institutions in the city of New York.”

Memorabilia – and running jerseys – at Coogan's (Photo by Gregg McQueen via Manhattan Times)

Memorabilia – and running jerseys – at Coogan’s (Photo by Gregg McQueen via Manhattan Times)

Snyder wrote, “Whoever you were, you could find a place at the bar, a table for dinner, and a picture on the wall that reminded you of someone you knew.”

Walsh remains proud that Coogan’s stayed open even during disturbances in Washington Heights 1992 following the fatal shooting of a local resident by a police officer.

“We were open around the clock for a few days,” he said. “We became a safe haven.”

As unrest raged outside of the restaurant’s walls, Walsh introduced Police Commander Nick Estavillo to City Council member Guillermo Linares, who was dining inside. “They sat down; something got worked out,” recounted Walsh. “The next day, the riots stopped.”

While the pub’s status as a cop hangout surely helped ward off drug dealers and vandals during the neighborhood’s darker days, its proximity to the Fort Washington Armory ensured a steady stream of customers visiting for indoor track events.

Coogan’s would soon become synonymous with track and field, as the hundreds of collegiate runners’ jerseys hanging around the restaurant attest. A hodgepodge of other memorabilia adorns the walls, from historic neighborhood photos to numerous snapshots of celebrity visitors to the restaurant.

Coogan’s has achieved the enviable status of a neighborhood hangout with a national reputation — it was once named by the National Restaurant Association as the best neighborhood restaurant in the United States, and both Al Gore and Hillary Clinton have stumped for votes there.

Washington Heights native Dania Zapata Morel has been general manager for the past 15 years. (Photo by Gregg McQueen via Manhattan Times)

Washington Heights native Dania Zapata Morel has been general manager for the past 15 years. (Photo by Gregg McQueen via Manhattan Times)

Dania Zapata Morel, a Washington Heights native who has been the restaurant’s general manager and event booker for the past 15 years, said Coogan’s serves as a refuge for people visiting New York-Presbyterian, many of whom are in dismal spirits because they or a loved one are dealing with a serious illness.

“So many people send us a postcard or email after they visited us, saying that Coogan’s made them feel better during a difficult time,” Morel said. About 25 percent of the restaurant’s business coming from New York-Presbyterian’s staff and visitors, said Walsh.

Coogan’s serves a variety of burgers, sandwiches, soups, salads and entrees. The average entree price is $16.99, with the most expensive meal topping out at $26.99.

In recent years, the owners have put more emphasis on offering healthier food options, like an increased selection of salads and fresh vegetables. “When we first opened, probably 15 percent of customers were looking for healthy food options,” said Hunt. “Now, I’d say 40 percent are interested in lighter fare.”

In Coogan’s earlier days, there weren’t as many eateries on the surrounding blocks to provide competition, but other establishments have popped up in recent years, including a Dallas BBQ, a pizzeria and a tavern.

Walsh said he enjoys networking with other businesses, as he believes more competition is good for the neighborhood. He has been an active member of the Washington Heights Chamber of Commerce and supportive of the nearby 181st Street Business Improvement District.

A neighborhood staple

In 1998, Coogan’s founded the Salsa, Blues and Shamrocks 5K Run, an annual race that sends thousands of runners winding through Washington Heights streets, which are lined with live bands performing klezmer music, jazz, blues, salsa, and Irish folk tunes.

“It became a neighborhood staple,” Walsh said of the race. “You’d run from one sound to another, and it brought plenty of people to Washington Heights who had never been here before.”

Walsh explained that Coogan’s was forced to give up sponsorship of the race two years ago, after the NYPD began charging fees to provide officers for private events.

An example of some of the financial challenges facing small businesses in the city, Coogan’s would have been assessed a $50,000 fee to arrange NYPD help for the race, according to Walsh.

“It was just too much for us,” he remarked.

Though Coogan’s is firmly ingrained as an uptown institution, its owners insist they have no particular recipe for success. “I’d like to think that we’re just great businessmen,” Hunt said with a laugh. “But there are many things we can’t control, and it still works out for us.”

Hunt suggested that, much like Washington Heights itself, Coogan’s is driven by a survivor’s mentality.

“Thankfully, we’ve been able to dodge every curveball that’s been thrown at us,” he said. “And we still land on our feet.”

Gregg McQueen is a reporter for Manhattan Times and participated in the Business Reporting Fellowship of the Center for Community and Ethnic Media, funded by a grant from News Corp. This story has been modified from the original, which first appeared in Manhattan Times.

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