When I asked Tommy Burke what one of the keys to the success of his longstanding New York establishments is, he said, “We’re basing them on a time a long time ago. It’s not trendy. This time will never change because it’s gone, so it will last forever.”
The Irish native, who came to New York in 1985 and got his start in the industry working in his family’s deli, owns several popular establishments in the city — Papillon in Midtown East, Lillie’s in both Union Square and Times Square and Ashby’s on Wall Street and in the Flatiron District.
His newest venture, Oscar Wilde, is slated to serve its first cocktail next month. The bar is inspired by its literary namesake, who also happened to be the friend of actress Lillie Langtry, after which two of his places are named.
Oscar Wilde, at 45 West 27th Street, near Broadway, is ensconced in a building with a rich history. “We found out that Prohibition had their headquarters there and that the Mafia took the floor above them so they could listen in and spy,” Burke said.
The bar will pay homage to the period with its cocktail menu, created by Johnny Swet. “We’re going to have an extensive cocktail list because Oscar liked cocktails and champagne. We’re also going to have a section for Prohibition-era cocktails,” Burke said.
Tell us about when you came to New York and how you got your start in the industry. I grew up in the west of Ireland and after I graduated from high school and worked for my father for a while, I decided I needed to get out of there and go to America. So I came to New York in 1985. I had a relative who had a food store, like a deli, on 23rd Street and Broadway and I started working there. And that was my start in the business. I worked for the family business until ’92. And then I got some money together and opened a little store on 46th Street, between Fifth and Madison and called it Ashby’s. It was a coffee shop — soup, salads, sandwiches and coffee. Then I opened a rotisserie store on Ninth Avenue and 46th Street as well. That was 1994. The chicken store, I eventually sold. The Ashby’s concept I kept going, and still have it today. I don’t have that location on 46th Street, but I have one down at 120 Broadway, one block north of Wall Street and another on Sixth Avenue and 22nd Street.
The first bar/restaurant you owned was Papillon, which has been on East 54th Street since 1999. In 1999, I got into the bar and restaurant business, which is now Papillon. The building has a lot of history, 22 East 54th Street. It was owned by the Reidy family, who had it since 1944. Developers came in the ‘80s and bought all the buildings for demolition to put up a high-rise. But Mr. Reidy wouldn’t sell. He held out. And there’s been books written about him since. When you go to Papillon, even today, before you go in and look up, you see it’s a little building. The developer had to buy the air rights and build over them; it’s a 60-story building. So I met William Reidy in 1999. He was an Irish Catholic from Riverdale and had nine children. He raised his kids and sent them all to school and it was time for him to retire. And he wanted someone he could trust to take over the business and rent the space ... I said to my best friend, Frank McCole, who I met in Murphy’s on Second Avenue in the early ‘90s, “Come in with me and we’ll build something amazing.” And that’s what we did. He was always in construction and in the bar business in Ireland as well, so knew the industry. We built Papillon together. It’s based on the true story of Henri Charriere, a man who went to prison for a crime he never committed. He broke out like three times and they caught him and put him back in again. And he got released because he was innocent and moved to Venezuela and opened nightclubs and had a very colorful life. It’s a movie with Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman.
You met your wife at Papillon. How does she handle you working in the restaurant business?I met her in 2002. She was a customer and came in all the time. She was going to school. And then she worked with me for a while. And we got to know each other and that was it. I met her in the business and she saw what I did, so for that reason, it worked. And we’ve been together ever since. And the funny thing is, Mr. Reidy met his wife there as well. So good things happen there.
Explain who Lillie was and what intrigued you so much to name your next venture after her. The BBC did a miniseries in 1977 and I saw that on television and was fascinated by her. She was born in 1853 on an island called Jersey, which is off the coast of England. She met Mr. Langtry who was a shipping magnate out of Belfast because he used to vacation there. And eventually he asked her to marry him. She was still very young, like 17. So he moved her to London and put her up in a beautiful house on High Street and then he went about back to doing what he did around the world. She genuinely loved him, but he left her alone. So she met friends, including Oscar Wilde, who wound up becoming her best friend. She became the mistress of the Prince of Wales and he sent her to Paris to acting classes. And that’s how she became an actress and became very famous.
What’s a memorable customer story?Bill Clinton was memorable. He used to come to Papillon unannounced. One night he came, he was dressed down in jeans and a jacket. It was a Wednesday night. He was with another man and went to the upstairs bar. So when he’s dressed down, his security is dressed down. He was at the middle of the bar with his friend and drank vodka and soda with a piece of lemon. The restaurant was full, and little by little, people noticed him. Everyone got excited. The memorable part about it was that when he was ready to leave, all my staff, from the kitchen and everybody, wanted to meet him. They were at the top of the stairs, 15 people lined up. This all happened spontaneously. And he went and shook every single one of their hands. And for 15 minutes he talked to basically the lowest of them, a runner from India. And that was why he was so successful. Because he made everybody feel like they were the only person.