I stopped into the newly, and beautifully, refurbished House of Shields yesterday as they were preparing to open for the day (their hours are 3 pm to 2 am). In a city that continues to romance the ideas of drinking in ye olden days, hinting at Prohibition and the Barbary Coast eras, donning pageboy caps and the lot, the House of Shields is the real thing.
Admittedly, I've been deep into Boardwalk Empire—HBO's own version of the prohibition—so a part of me really gets sinking into a city's history and lore. (And it just so happens that the House of Shields was opened in 1908, the same year "Nucky" Johnson was elected as sheriff of Atlantic City.) Prohibition arrived eleven years later, in 1919.
The man behind the "new" House of Shields is Dennis Leary, chef-owner of Canteen, Golden West and the next door sandwich shop, The Sentinel. When he moved into The Sentinel, he told me he was calling it that because he was "watching" out for some prime real estate to become available. Turns out this history buff has had his eye on the old, rundown bar for years. "I'm a fan of the old stuff in San Francisco as only a non-native could be," he says. As for the H.O.S., "I understand a dive bar," he said. "And that's great. But this place is too inherently classy to be neglected."
Once the lease expired, Leary took over the bar, closed it and lovingly had it restored. Now, the beautiful brass chandeliers and sconces are lit up again, the oak and mahogany walls have been cleaned of 100 years of cigarette smoke and soot, the porcelain molding has been cleaned up and the bar—manned by bartender Eric Passetti—is ready to go with a nice selection of whiskey (Passetti's personal favorite being the Bernheim small batch wheat whiskey).
Leary has learned a lot about the lore of the H.O.S. since taking it over, but the biggest shocker to me is the fact that women were not allowed into the bar until … 1972. Something I'd say is far more scandalous that the rumored tunnel that used to connect the H.O.S. to the Palace Hotel across the street for easy mistress access. I figure they should have just allowed her in—much easier than building a tunnel. But clearly not as fun.