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 →

87 thoughts on “Elsie’s Oke Doke Bar

  1. Did you ever go to the All State Cafe, on W 72nd St? Similar. Two steps down to enter. Supposedly the bar that Cheers was based on. Kevin Bacon tended bar there in the early 70’s.
    Likewise, Fedora’s, in the Village, was there from about 1951 till year before last. She sold out, they remodeled it into another soulless fancy schmancy New York eatery. She (Fedora) still hangs around there, but it ain’t the kind of wonderful crummy old place it used to be.
    I assume you know that the new WTC becomes the tallest building in New York today?

  2. I do know. I want to take a walk downtown and take pictures. Maybe I will do that now …

    I don’t know All State Cafe, but I’m sorry I didn’t. I’m VERY sorry I missed the opportunity of being served a drink by Kevin Bacon (who I adore). Ellen Barkin used to waitress at the Bagel on West 4th Street!

  3. Stacy, I’m so grateful at your continued efforts to notice people and things and acknowledge their importance. It really gets me to see a place like this where lives unfolded and now the whole thing has been replaced as if it were never there.

  4. What a trip down memory lane!
    The line you refer to comes from a poem by Allen Ginsberg, “America.”

    Another: (America), “why are your libraries full of tears?”

    Another (paraphrase)”When will you learn to be angelic?”
    It’s online if you want to read the whole poem.

    I remember writing in that book–but I have no recollection what. Were we really forty something?

    (sorry I posted this above-wrong place.)

  5. What a coincidence! Only yesterday, as I was biking through Yorkville, I had a sudden flashback to the many nights spent in the company of the charming Elsie at her Oke Doke in the late 80’s. It was, without a doubt, my all-time favorite Manhattan joint. Thus, today I did a Google search to find out where it was and found your posting from just yesterday. I remember as clearly as if it were last week, meekly rapping on the locked front door and peering through the haze of caked nicotine on the glass as Elsie studied me through the window to see whether or not she approved. I was lucky enough to have passed her muster, somehow. I have a rather vivid anecdote that took place there that I hope doesn’t strike you as vulgar, but come on…we’ve all been there! I was in the neighborhood when I had a sudden, urgent need for a men’s room. I darted into Elsie’s, which was curiously opened earlier than usual (as I recall, her hours were VERY unpredictable). In any case, I anxiously darted into her tiny, gruesome men’s room, only to discover that the stall was “CLOSED FOR REPAIR”. So I went over to Elsie and said I had an emergency and could I use the ladies’ room. She said, “What? The urinal’s working!” I said, “Umm, no…I need the other one!” She said, “Oh, okay, go on in!”. If you recall the place was microscopically tiny and the restrooms were basically right next to the bar. As I ran into the ladies’ room and took a seat, through the wood-slatted door I heard one of the grizzled, female denizens of the bar: “Hey Elsie…I just saw a guy go in the ladies’ room!” Elsie cheerfully announced at full-volume, to everyone in the room, “OH, IT’S OKAY…HE’S IN THERE DOING A NUMBER TWO!” I’ll never forget the looks of everyone at the bar as I tried to quietly creep out of there, staring at me as if I’d just committed some crime against the nation….what a joint that was! Thanks for the memories…

    Incidentally, wasn’t the All-State on 72nd the bar where the woman whose life was chronicled in “Looking for Mr. Goodbar” took place? She met a guy there and went home with him…and he turned out to be her psycho-killer? Pretty sure that was the place. I used to hang there, too!

  6. Very embarrassing story, Gregory!

    Chris, I just deleted the other post. And yes, we were forty-something, alas.

  7. My family and I lived at 307 east 84th from 1966 until 1975 (I was born in 71). We lived on the 3rd floor.
    My parents were friends with Elsie. As kids –
    we’d drop in for a coke or pepsi (didn’t know the difference). I think she had a cat if I remember correctly.

  8. That’s amazing that you remember something from when you were only three years old!! Did you go back from time to time?

  9. Yes – I have a lot of great memories from back then. We stayed in Yorkville even
    after moving from 84th street. We lived on 83rd and then 92nd st.

  10. 86th street was a big deal to us as kids. We had movie theaters, lots of places to eat, places to shop (gimbels). We spent a lot of
    time at Carl Shurz park as well.

  11. I grew up on Long Island and I always envied the kids who got to grow up in the city.

  12. I have cousins that grew up on Long Island and they felt the same way. I actually looked
    forward to visiting them during the summer. It was a whole different experience.

  13. When world’s collide! Well, now I’ve been in the city for many years, so I made that dream come true!

  14. Did you ever hear the story about Jack Nicholson being refused entry by Elsie. I could imagine hearing him ranting outside.

  15. Stacy, I’m a little late to the party–somehow my friend and fellow Elise patron just came across this. My friends & I were regulars (probably too regular) for about 4 years from about ’88-’92. Elsie knew us well and was a real character. As to the jukebox, our favorites were Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” & The Foundations’ “Buttercup.” Not mentioned was that she hated swearing and would threaten to throw you out if you did (and that was if she liked you). She also threatened to throw me & a friend out one night for “cutting up”–namely we were kidding around and laughing too much for her taste–really funny since we were the only ones there. Also, behind the bar she had a picture of early 50’s Yankee outfielder Hank Bauer, who she had proudly dated at the time. What great memories!

  16. I forgot about the swearing, but now that you mention it, I remember! But I don’t remember the Hank Bauer picture. Thank you so much for posting your memories. I so wish it was still there. I know Elsie is gone, but it would have been great if someone else could have taken it over. There’s no place like that now.

  17. I moved into 307 East 84th two years ago and only now learned about the legendary Elsie Rennie (or Renee?) and her Oke Doke bar downstairs. What I would give to be able to visit it! Her story is fascinating and is inspiring me to perhaps dig up enough of it to chronicle. Thanks for the beautiful account, Stacy.

  18. Went with my girlfriend (now my wife of 29 years). Early 80’s. Fun time in NYC for us, young and in love. Elsie was the only person in the place. It was very late. I asked Elsie if she was ever afraid when she was alone in her bar. She said “No. My boys take care of me.” Tiny world-weary lady with a smile. I miss those days

  19. I remember going there in the mid ’80s. As I recall, Elsie had a regular kitchen type refrigerator filled with small pony bottles of Rolling Rock, and so that was what you drank. Funny. Thanks for the memories

  20. Elsie, give those kids another round!

    A group of us were habitues of the Oke Doke for years in the early 70s. We were in our 20s, fresh out of Northwestern, giddy with New York. Ah, the German polkas! Elsie was our aunt, the Oke Doke our true north.

    Everyone else at the Oke Doke was much older, but still, we were all as one. The “boys” would buy us beers until we could barely crawl around the corner to our apartment on 83rd St.

    I remember weeping late one night with one of the boys about the Russian invasion of Hungary in 1956, which he had witnessed. “My mother, the tanks,” he sobbed, and we held each other and cried. God, I miss those days!

    A friend just sent me this blog post and comments, and I am just gob-smacked! I wrote a feature on it in the late 70s for a Yorkville community weekly. Elsie didn’t like it. I felt really bad.

  21. Spent a fair amount of time at Elsie’s in the early 80s. My recollection is that you weren’t a regular until you helped Elsie clean up after closing and then went to work in the morning (about two hours later)–which I’m proud to say I did. Does anyone recall the name of the older woman with the blonde updo an Scandinavian accent who was Elsie’s stand-in/helper?

  22. I have fond memories of 1981-87 period visiting Elsie’s very frequently as I lived in the neighborhood. She kept the beer (Spaten) in an old fridge. On the juke box, Tom T. Hall singing “I Like Beer,” and an Austrian march. Elsie used to complain that she always played the lottery using Valentine’s Day (2/14) but never won. So one night I gave her $5 to play a different number– 723. Damn if she didn’t hit it. She never knew my name but would call me “723.”

  23. I spent a summer in NYC in ’87 and this was my favorite bar. Sorry to hear that I won’t be able to take my wife here when we visit later this year, but at least you’ve memorialized the spirit of the joint.

    My favorites Elsie story was when we asked her the last time she had been out of Manhattan. She replied “before the war” which meant WWII.

  24. I’m so glad I posted about Elsie and her bar. It’s just brought out all these great stories. Thank you for posting. I’m really sorry Elsie and the bar are gone too. I can’t think of anyplace like it to even recommend. Rents make it impossible for people and places like Elsie to exist anymore, tragically.

  25. Spent more than a few nights in the mid 80s drinking mini bottles of Bud as I fed the juke box quarters to hear Edith Piaf. The place should have been landmarked. The tank for the toilet in the men’s room was wooden with a pull chain and 6 feet above the seat. Elsie had the inside “skinny” on the Lindberg kidnapping.

  26. One of my best HS buddies (a current & long time NYC resident)took me there a few of times in the late 80’s/early 90’s and I remember waiting anxiously outside each time hoping to get “the nod” to come in……always successful! A great place & a great lady. No one has mentioned buying Elsie Jager shots in hopes of staying in her good graces and get talkin’.

  27. I was a regular at Elsie’s from ’80 – ’87. Once a month use to drive her across the GW bridge to whatever that town is across the bridge. She’d get her hair done and visit with her girlfriend.
    Use to love her stories; especially about dating that Yankee player, Hank somebody; and some other kid who grew up to be mayor.
    I was the one who contributed the Ink Spots and the Tokens “Lion Sleeps Tonight” to the jukebox.
    Sure miss Elsie and that place.

  28. Oh, how I remember the days. Such fun times – even into the mid-90’s. We would always go late-night. She never lost at that darn bowling game, and discouraged dancing to the juke box until I offered her my hand and had a twirl around the place.

    Spaten in the fridge – right next to her ketchup, pickles and mustard! She’d drink shots right along with us.

    Such fun times. Such a great character. New York needs more places just like it.

    I vow that when I win the lottery I will bring back a place just like it (although I may clean the bathrooms a tad more often. Last time I was there, the men’s room down the hall was broken, and the ladies room was, well, let’s just say “not clean”)

  29. I just gave the eulogy for my friend, Timmy, who introduced me to Elsie’s. We walked in the first time and Timmy said, “Elsie, meet my friend, You’re going to like him”. After that I got in whenever I knocked. My drinks were straight and Elsie would sometimes tell me to pour my own when she was busy talking to someone else. There are a few places trying to recreate the “speakeasy” feeling. Elsie was an original. So was the bar. It may well be the only “exclusive” club I ever truly loved. If RT wins the lottery I’m happy to show up opening night. Will he let me in?

  30. Thanks for writing this, Stacy and great comments! A friend just posted something about a shoe store closing on 82nd & Lex that has been there since 1955, which made me think of Elsie’s (of course) and the many hours spent there in the mid-’80s. I often met people who “were back to say hello” from some distant place, which I thought surprising at the time. What I would give now to do the same! Spaten in the ice chest and the Ink Spots on the jukebox (kudos Tony Phillips). I had forgotten the Edith Piaf, but that is absolutely right. Piaf was kind of the perfect music for that place – went well with the phlegmatic, no-nonsense yet mysteriously elegant Elsie.

  31. Hi! I would also give anything to be able to go back to Elsie’s and say hello, and to find it just as it was the last time I saw it. Sigh. Major sigh.

  32. Lived across the street from Elsie’s from 1981-84. Elsie hung an autographed photo of our old pal Jim Lampley on the wall. The mini bottled beers were classics. Approx 1992 I took several clients from the Deep South in late one night. They loved the place. Legend of old Yorkville she was…also Pedro’s around the corner and the infamous Dorian’s down the block. Great times.

  33. I used to go there in the late 80s and early 90s. Elsie would buzz you in, a good place for some girls to go for a drink. One night I went with a small mixed group, a few people new to Elsie’s. You needed to prepare newbies — they had to show Elsie respect! Anyway, one of the crowd, put their elbows on the bar I think and looked sloppy, and then said the wrong thing and Elsie snapped. She pounded something on the bar with a loud bang and we were all OUT – with a mix of fear, embarrassment and regret for upsetting the old gal and having the wrong sort of friends! You needed to be respectful and humble and I appreciated that — you were an invited guest and needed to behave like one.
    I remember getting the impression from her that there were the “boys” who looked after her and helped her out with keeping the place stocked and moving heavy things. I miss that sort of place and Elsie. I cannot hear Patsy’s Crazy without thinking of the Oke Doke

  34. I frequented Elsie’s in the late 80’s into the 1990’s. She was always pleasant but quiet and made it clear that she didn’t want any nonsense in her bar. Once, a friend of mine who is fluent in German started speaking to her (in German, which she spoke) and she clammed right up — we couldn’t figure out why.
    I am an UWS resident — As for comparisons to All State Cafe, the only similarities are that they were both dark. The All State was a great Upper West Side burger and beer joint and Elsie’s was a quiet, mind your own business beer room — more of a speakeasy than a bar. Each was great in it’s own way but no one would confuse one for the other.
    It is sad that Elsie’s is gone but we were all lucky to have had the honor of experiencing a unique piece of NYC history.

  35. I used o hang out at Elsie’s in the mid and late 80’s and win some beers from hustling innocent young men in the shuffle table. One night, my friends and I met Bob McAllister – the host of Wonderama. Highlight of my bar hopping years in NYC.

  36. oh my lord.. i remember Elsie (she was prob around 80 when i first met her).. she would charge you 5$ if you cursed.. and she used to love jagger meister shots (you could buy them for her but as i recall she just sipped them).. and only two beers available bud or spaten.. and one of the 2 only came in an 8 ounce bottles.. ah Elsie.. it was my secret place to bring dates.. ah i miss Elsie… so weird to come across this site.. i remember my first time.. so confused about the knock on glass and getting buzzed in (i think my girlfriend i just walked away the first time).. i remember so many times when there was only a few people in there.. wonderful memories.. So many memories, i remember elsie showing me articles of her from i think the late 1940s or 50s, (i learned the name was oke dokey and not ‘Elsies’ as i always referred to it) and endless postcards.. ha one was from my girlfriend (she sent it after seeing all the ones elsie had). Ah nice memories… It was my late night place.. after restaurant and partying out… Unique.. it was Unique Elsie and that place perfect together….

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