Six subway stops south of Times Square, in Manhattan’s West Village, and I’m almost home.
The exit says New York University, but that’s not the draw. Neither is Stonewall Inn, where the nation’s gay rights movement began in 1969, but now we’re getting warmer.
Less than 50 feet from the Stonewall, a sidewalk chalkboard congratulates the UW women’s hockey team on their newest national championship. Follow a couple of steps below ground and open the door.
It’s nearly spring, but the bartender wears a Super Bowl XLV shirt. Green Bay Packer photos and newspaper clippings are affixed to walls. On tap is the Little Wisco Special, a pale ale from Brooklyn’s Sixpoint Brewery, whose brewmaster was raised in Wisconsin.
One of three in-house dart teams is the Drunken Cheeseheads. On bar shelves are a long-unopened bottle of Cheesehead White Wine and an array of Packer collectibles, including two autographed helmets.
One was signed by Bart Starr. The signature on the other faces the wall.
Patrick Daley could handle it when Brett Favre joined the New York Jets, but “when he became a Viking, our Favre stuff went into the basement.” The helmet that Favre signed is an exception, but today it is simply referred to as “our other Packer helmet.”
This is Kettle of Fish, unlike other New York City bars because it expresses unconditional love for Wisconsin, especially the state’s sports teams. Patrick, the owner, is a De Pere native who wears shorts (although it’s barely 40 degrees) with his green and gold T-shirt that says “Packers NYC official headquarters” (a fish drawing goes between the “o” and “al”).
The proprietor is 56 years old, one of 10 sons, and talks about how his father used to climb a chain link fence to see Packer games during the Depression. The family has owned season tickets since 1957.
Kettle of Fish is five years older than Patrick and today operates from its third location. He bought the business in 1998 but has lived on the East Coast much longer, explaining that he came to New York City for a vacation and stayed.
“I fell in love with the city on the bus ride in,” he says. “We were going through Queens on a blistering hot day. I was seeing every color of people imaginable and thinking ‘this is unbelievable.’ ”
So he began work as a cashier at the St. Moritz Hotel, near Central Park, then started bartending at Kettle of Fish in 1983 and met his other half, Adriane, there in 1990.
The tavern moved to its present location when building leases expired. The former Lion’s Head was home to journalists, playwrights and authors, Norman Mailer to Jack Kerouac, and a sign of honor was to have the jacket cover of your newly released book framed and hung on the wall (Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes” was the last before the Lion’s Head closed in 1996).
Although Kettle of Fish doesn’t ignore this part of the building history, sports paraphernalia began to show up after Patrick and Adriane took over. When a friend gave them a satellite TV dish, Patrick says “we just went from there.” Adriane, a native of Connecticut – “land of great pizza,” describes the transition as “all very organic and natural.”
During those early days, she used baked clay to make earrings and tie clips in the shape of cheese wedges. She is a football fan who insists she hasn’t seen a game for years because she works the door, collecting $2 per head upon entrance on Packer game days.
“I call her my offensive left tackle – she guards my blind side,” Patrick says. Their winter vacation always coincides with the team’s bye week.
On Super Bowl Sunday, Patrick says the line to get in “started before my Saturday night staff left at 6 a.m., and 40 were in line by 10 a.m.,” six hours before Kettle of Fish opened. The crowd tailgated, Manhattan style; that meant “no grilling, but crockpots.” The nearby statue of a Civil War general was topped with a Cheesehead hat.
“All the bars in this neighborhood were green and gold that day,” Patrick says, but only his place orders Usinger brats every week during football season, to serve on game day. “We add buns from a bakery, made that morning, and sauerkraut – we do it right.”
On Thanksgiving, Kettle of Fish serves a catered holiday dinner. “We get a dozen 20-pound turkeys if there’s a Packer game,” Patrick says. “Without one … maybe six.”
Holiday diners have included the Pulaski High School band, with their parents, who showed up – unannounced but welcome – after marching in the Macy’s parade.
Two Sundays before Christmas, bar regulars gather and sing Christmas carols from songbooks – “about 50 carols, some more than once” – plus “Sweet Caroline,” in remembrance of a deceased friend. Adriane’s mom provides rum balls.
Retired Packer linebacker Dave Robinson has showed up for a book signing at Kettle of Fish. Clayton Hanson, the former Badger basketball player, watch games here with Reedsburg buddies. Retired running back John Brockington would swing by when his daughter lived in the city.
Still to arrive is Packer President Mike Murphy, who recently sent a note about how much his daughters like the place. The letter, which Patrick framed, was in response to his plea that someone from the team bring the Super Bowl trophy for a visit.
Business success isn’t just about sports fans or success. “When we were 4 and 12, we’d still have 80 people here for a Packer game,” Patrick says, although he admits that he sometimes watches Brewers baseball in the bar alone.
When I visit, “Jeopardy” is on TV, and Adivije Sheji is among the patrons. Her favorite barstool is next to the wall, near the entrance, and sometimes she reads a book as she nurses a glass of wine.
“I like the small town feel, in one of the biggest cities in the world,” she says. “They’re like family to me.”
For more about Kettle of Fish, 59 Christopher St., New York: kettleoffishnyc.com, 212-414-2278. Take the No. 1 subway toward downtown and get off at the Christopher Street exit.
The tavern stays open until 4 a.m., and the name is a reference to a 1935 Laurel and Hardy movie line: “Here’s another nice kettle of fish you’ve pickled me in!”