Elsie’s Oke Doke Bar

When I was in my twenties I used to go to a bar on 84th Street called the Oke Doke. The name was technically the Oke Doke Restaurant, but it wasn’t a restaurant, it was a tiny bar with no tables, (that I remember) a jukebox and a shuffle bowl game. Elsie, the owner, wouldn’t open the door for everyone. You’d knock, she looked you over, and maybe she’d let you in.

Sometime after I turned forty, I went back to the Oke Doke with my friend Chris. Elsie was like the Miss Havisham of bar owners, it turned out. I wrote about the visit in my book, Waiting For My Cats to Die. An abridged version:

“The place was practically unchanged. The same singers were on the jukebox: Frank Sinatra, who is the most represented, Al Jolson, Patsy Cline, Bobby Darin, Marion Lanza, The Ink Spots, and Peggy Lee. I recognized the few knick-knacks behind the bar, like a cheap brandy snifter filled with 20 year old, now smell-less pot-pourri, as well as the shuffle bowl game on the way to the bathroom. Nothing has moved in eighteen years, nothing has been spruced up, nothing has been renovated. It was dingier and less cheerful …

“Elsie was smaller than I remembered, and grayer. “I’ve been running this place since 1950,” she tells me. The guys I used to come in here with—who weren’t exactly the nicest guys in the world—still come around, she told me. She clearly adored them. She called them “my boys” and told me what they are all up to.

“The three of us talked about men and children until she buzzed in a group of six young Eastern European men who, recognizing the honor they had been given, thanked her very politely, and took the stools to our right. A little while later she buzzed in a handsome man roughly my age who walked in with a very lovely young woman in her twenties. They sat to my left. “This is my third time in here this week,” he announced to the room. I liked him at once. Elsie pulled out a guestbook. “Someone gave this to me in 1986,” she said. It listed the dates, names, addresses and, best part, it had a space for comments.

“I scanned for familiar names. I found one of Elsie’s boys, someone I used to come here with. “I will always love you … Your Tallboy.” (He was gigantic, I remember.) I found his brother’s name. He’d written, “When will I be known only for my own good deeds?” A touching question …”

I would do anything to read that guestbook now, slowly and carefully. I couldn’t at the time. It’s just the kind of thing I live for whenever I research and write. The comments created such a perfect picture of the place and the people who used to drink there. The Tallboy was a guy named Ray who I’d dated a few times. Ray had, like, a billion brothers, and I don’t remember which one wrote “When will I be known only for my own good deeds?” but I still think it’s a touching question. I wonder if he ever went on to perform any good deeds.

Sometime after, I went back to the Oke Doke, and there was a sign on the door saying that it was closed and Elsie was in a nursing home. I went to visit her. The place wasn’t bad at all, but it was a terrible visit. Elsie was miserable and angry to be there, and she just fumed the whole time, it was awful. She told me her boys visited her and I believed her. Like I said, they weren’t the nicest people I’ve ever known, but as far as I could tell they had genuine affection for Elsie, so I could see them visiting her.

The site of the former Elsie’s Oke Doke, from Google maps. The orange awning is where Elsie’s used to be. I wished I’d taken a picture at the time. I couldn’t find a picture of it online. She ran it for roughly forty years, there must be a picture somewhere.

Update: Scroll down for a picture of Elsie, sent to me by Kevin Connell. Thank you, Kevin!

Elsie Renee at the Oke Doke Bar

Stacy Horn

I've written six non-fiction books, the most recent is Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, and Criminal in 19th-Century New York.

View all posts by Stacy Horn →

97 thoughts on “Elsie’s Oke Doke Bar

  1. She often left her ruby red lipstick on my cheek in the shape of two tiny hearts.
    What a character! “DON’T LEAN ON THAT END OF THE BAR – It will break!” and If you say the “B: word, it’s $5, the “S” word, $10, and the “F” woid, it’s $20 but you only get to say it ONCE! AFTER THAT YOU’RE OUT!!”

    Goldshlager – “with real gold specks” – always did a shot with you if you coaxed her.

  2. Charlie, that first sentence of yours! “She often left her ruby red lipstick on my cheek in the shape of two tiny hearts.” Are you a writer? All if it really.

    I’m feeling nostalgic today. If only Elsie and Elsie’s (and so many other things, places and people) were still around. I love the present, and the thrill of the future, but I still have a romance with the past.

  3. Stacy, Thanks for making the effort to document Elsie’s. My then East Village girlfriend took me there in 1987 back when the high point of my week was breezing past the bouncer at the long lines outside The World. Compared to that, getting into Elsie’s felt like I had “arrived”. It made for a nice shelf piece of my own personal mythology.

  4. My first time at Elsie’s was around 1988 when my East Village girlfriend took me there. It was at a time when the high point of my week was having the bouncer at The World allow us to skip the long lines outside. Getting into Elsie’s felt even better. Was like being in a scene from a movie.

  5. Elsie’s was a truly unique spot. I so wish I had taken photos as well. Had some crazy nights there chatting with the five or people in there at any given time and fondly remember the tiny budweiser bottles and Elsie’s affection for Goldschlager and some sort of apple liqueur.
    And her “rules”! Hahaha

  6. I was doing some research online today and somehow thought to look up Elsie’s Okie Dokie Bar & found this… Elsie was indeed a character. I started going there in 1983. I lived on E. 90th st. I only got in the first time because I was with a regular who took me & warned me about her policy of not letting everyone in. I must admit that I pissed her off a few times, but she always forgave me – We had a laugh about my younger days when I visited the bar (and saw her for the last time) several years later. I also remember a young hottie in the early 80’s by the name of Bernadette that was close enough to Elsie to go behind the bar & help out. Speaking of behind the bar – I remember Elsie’s little old off white refrigerator – She kept the little 7oz bottles of Budweiser in there. She referred to them as “Buddies”. Elsie had been buddies in the 1950’s with several of the New York Yankees – I think she may have had a photo of one of them on the wall behind the bar…. I also remember the lady pictured with Elsie – She worked there & she was trippy too. I learned to really dig Patsy Cline through my time spent in that little bar…

  7. I live near by Carnegie Hill yet never heard of this place. My good friend Barry Sender on 84th introduced me to Elsie one night after dinner. Elsie and the place was a gem. A great experience. Sad to hear that she was miserable her old age. I can only hope that her 40 years of great memories gave her comfort in her last years. To Elsie!

  8. Thank you for posting about Elsie. A friend introduced me to the Oke Doke in the mid-eighties. Ten years later I was in NY again, I walked by the Oke Doke and it was in darkness. I called later that night and Elsie answered the phone. She told me she opened up after she had her supper every evening. I stopped by a few more times after that, one time Elsie was passing around a press packet from a Liam Neeson film. There was an autographed 8×10 of Mr. Neeson. Elsie told us that Mr. Neeson had been to the Oke Doke with is mother and he was a nice fellow! My last time at the Oke Doke I brought a coworker who unfortunately dropped an f-bomb in front of Elsie. I cringed and yes she went after him. I always think of Elsie, I miss her and those like her who made New York what it was.

  9. I miss her and the Oke Doke too. I miss the New York I knew, but I imagine everyone says that as they grow older, alas. Everything changes.

  10. She had one of the last “dime” payphones in nYc. She refused to let the Bell telephone guys into the bar and had a key for the coin box. She would hand them a bag of coins each week, alas but relented when they begged her to enter the premises and change the format to “25 cents.”

    The Men’s Room had urinals the size of the Hoover Dam.

    She had a bed and a small quarters in the rear of the bar, separated by a pane glass door (through which you could clearly see living space). In the “Ol’ Days” this was referred to as “Cassa Bottega” (or “House / Store.”

    I can hear the Tokens singing “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” as I type my words.

    Bless her and all of the unique memories she gave us.

  11. Thank you so much for those stories, I didn’t know that about the dime phone. I love that she wouldn’t let the Bell tel employees inside!

  12. My friend Elizabeth… A Holly Golightly protege took us all here in the early 80s.
    Like 54, Mud Club, Area, Bilboquet… a part of New York past never to come again…
    You had to be there… But the great thing was… Most of you weren’t…

  13. Love the stories – hung out there some from 87-90 – lived on 89th and usually stopped there on way home late on the weekends. I don’t remember the bar having much more than The little bottles of Budweiser and peach schnapps. Incredible that no one has a photo- would love to see the place one more time.

  14. Stacy:
    great story; great memories. We lived on 89th St. and after walking past it several times, late one evening tried the door…seeing a few people inside we rapped on the window and were granted entrance.
    Loved going there; don’t recall much of a selection beyond the little bottles of Budweiser in the refrigerator and peach schnapps. There were a few photos of old New York Yankees behind the bar and I believe Hank Greenburg was Elsie’s favorite.
    I think about those days in New York, and Elsie’s from time to time. Sure wish someone had taken a few photos…

  15. I too remember the Oke-Doke well…we often said that you couldn’t be a regular until you stayed til closing on a weeknight, helped Elsie (and her friend–what was her name?) clean up (usually until about 5) and then made it to work on time the next morning. I used to walk by the Oke-Doke at various times of the morning and afternoon, and always saw a few regulars inside in various states of repose.

    Sadly, our Oke-Doke good times ended suddenly one night when we brought an African-American friend with us. The bar went suddenly quiet and, after a few snide but obvious remarks made sotto voce, we left, never to return. An old-timer I saw on the street some time later told me that Elsie had once been robbed by a black man and had never gotten over it. A sad ending to a great place–I can’t hear “Paper Doll” by the Mills Brothers without thinking of it.

  16. Someone else told a similar story. It’s so sad to learn that Elsie was racist, and the mugging story — had she been mugged by someone who was white would she have not permitted white men inside the bar? I can accept that she might have had some continuing PTSD symptoms related African American men, but then she could have explained to African American men who came in and said, “I’m sorry, I know it wasn’t you and all African American men are not to blame for the act of one, but I have anxiety attacks,” etc.

    And why the snide remarks? The mugging story sounds like a justification for racism, alas.

  17. Evan, for some reason I haven’t been getting email for months to approve comments so I’m sorry I’ve been so late to approve and respond! Yeah, I don’t remember there being much of a selection either and I too wish someone would come along with pictures!

  18. In 1970s I lived on east 84 Th street a few buildings down from Oke-Dokie and would love to drop in after a night of drinking and always an interesting crowd…often in tuxedos. My elderly neighbor would get drunk and sit there alot . often I would go get his son who had a drug store a few blocks away to help him get home.
    It was unlike anyplace I’ve ever been in. After all these years out of NYCI still think of it.

  19. I was an Elsie’s regular. I’m not much of a bar person by nature, but I loved hanging out in that little room and listening to Elsie’s stories night after night.

    It is true she sometimes said racist things, and I’m not sure if this helps but it was equal opportunity (Irish, Italians, Black people, Puerto Ricans, Asians) all fell into particular categories for her. More than anything Elsie was a creature of habit and liked to feel safe anyone outside her bubble was potentially a danger. It’s also true she was robbed and knifed and in her later years she connected that to her fear, but I honestly don’t think it was what defined her.

    I brought many friends there of many races including black friends, and she came to appreciate them, but it wasn’t sometimes without extra scrutiny. I had to endure that myself being “an oriental.” She was capable of change and I often was able to break down her prejudices simply by talking.

    We talked a lot. I loved going in on a Monday or Tues when nobody else was around and chatting til 2 or 3 drinking jeagermeisters. I loved the Lufthansa stewardesses that would come in at 2 and the regulars she treated like family. This was the last hurrah of the pre-instagram city that moved to different rhythms. I loved her, she was of a particular time and place and made New York feel like home to me. I’m surprised more hasn’t been written about her, this is the only other post I’ve found about her online: http://www.mexicanpictures.com/headingeast/2005/10/night-owl.html.

  20. Hi Tim. I’m so glad you took the time to gently challenge her racism, and that you actually got somewhere. In my experience it’s quite rare for people to change views like that so it does say something from her that she could change and grow.

    Thank you so so much for your evocative post. I miss those days and old New York. I love so many things about the present, but I guess there are always losses with every gain. I wonder if I’m still alive in twenty years will I miss these days too?

    And yeah, I’m also amazed there hasn’t been more written about her. But this post has gotten more responses than anything else I’ve written, so that’s a testament to her and the place she created.

  21. I never went to the bar but this girl from Queens always passed it as I walked to East End Ave where my best friend lived as we prepared to ligjt up the town. Tje mind is so special. I had a dream last nigjt of my younget self and I was outside the Oke looking in. I was transported to a former life…I was so happy to just find your blog. I will reach oit to my friends to see if they have a photo. Your name seemed familiar and yes, I remembered that you composef one of my favorite books about tje Queens vold case squad. It is a fascinating book.

  22. Wow! First, thank you for the compliment about my book. And thank you for reaching out to your friends for pictures. That would be so great if any more could be found.

  23. I was in a nostalgic mood tonight and decided to google Elsie’s Oakie Dokie Bar. I was surprised to see this. I was a somewhat regular in the mid 80’s …Got married in 89, divorced in 99 and went back to Elsie’s on a very regular basis. I got closer to Elsie and made it to the “bartender helper” level and would help her out when it got busy. I loved going there mid-week and just chatting with Elsie and whoever turned up. Fantastic times were had. To be honest, I’m still upset she and the bar is gone. But, I think we all knew how special this place was and how it could end any day. That made it all the more precious. I have one major regret and it still bothers me. I missed the 50 year anniversary party. I was newly divorced and had 3 kids to take care of and couldn’t get a baby sitter that night I tried but it wasn’t working. Elsie was angry with me , my excuse didn’t cut it with her and maybe she was right, I should’ve worked it out. But we got over it… It was a time and a place in my life and NYC history that I will always cherish. Thanks for writing about it Stacy, Tom “the fireman”

  24. Thanks for stopping by, Tom. What I wouldn’t give to be able to go to Elsie’s one more time. Sigh. (And Elsie was too hard on you for missing the party!)

  25. Oh my goodness…so many memories. I went to Oke Doke (which was always Elsie’s to me) in the late 1980s with the guy I was then seeing. We loved it–she always let us in and was super-nice to us, but gave us a “talk” right off the bat about her cuss jar, and that she took $5s, in case we got any ideas about swearing. I never went back after we broke up, and I regret that. I really liked her–she was feisty!

  26. Hi, watching a documentary on New York painter Richard Estes my mind wandered back to 1990. Living in NY for a year and introduced to Elsie’s by my then-girlfriend Elisabeth. I remember the jukebox and the beer bottels; we went there a couple of times and it always felt as a very special place. Greetings from Amsterdam, Holland

  27. It’s curious, I’ve spent my life on 84th street and I never went in. I must have passed it a thousand times, but otoh I’m not a bar-goer. I didn’t even know about the buzz-in rule!

  28. Well, if you’re not a bar-goer it wouldn’t make sense to stop in. So many great places (and people) have come and gone. My neighborhood, the West Village, is so changed. Visually it’s mostly the same, but all different stores and restaurants. Except now, a lot of empty buildings with no stores and restaurants.

  29. I lived over the Okie Doke from ’87 to ’91 and often made it my final stop of the night before heading upstairs. I was in good with Elsie because she liked to commiserate about what a cheapskate our landlord was. Like the other posts mentioned, the jukebox had only songs from iconic crooners with one exception… the theme to the Jetsons. I heard the guy who wrote it was a regular so Elsie put it in the lineup for him. To paraphrase Hemingway, those times were a moveable feast.

  30. Thank you for writing this. I was thinking about Elsie’s and then I wasn’t sure if maybe my mind was going and it was a figment of my imagination. So I Googled “Elsie Upper East Side Bar Apartment” and your article came up. I lived on 83rd and went there a few times in the mid 90s. One time she had my brother and me change a light bulb in her bedroom. Thank you for the article and all the wonderful comments.

  31. Charles, thanks for stopping by. I’ve really been enjoying people sharing their memories of this special, unique place and a time, apparently, gone by.

  32. She served Goldenslagger and Spaten from Munich. She would always let us in. Fortunate to be on her good list

  33. OMG just came upon this I hung out at Elsies in the late ’80’s had a party for a TV show we worked on there, had to bring our
    own TV in the snow! I do have photos somewhere need to find them. She was hilarious and cheap! we loved her – we live on 82nd and 3rd…

  34. Lived on 83rd and 3rd ‘85-‘88. Elsie’s was our favorite spot for before hours and especially after hours. Spaten, the Ink Spots, whatever that 1950s game was and of course the conversation. But the killer app as that she didn’t open the door for “just anybody.” Always her call. Always her bar. We were her acolytes ad much as her customers.

  35. Stacy I have to check with my sister she produced the show – it was hilarious to have the party there! – need to dig through my closet to find the photos – keep you posted! Anita

  36. HI STACY’

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