The conversation turned to old New York — specifically, old New York restaurants. The restaurateur Dean J. Poll was doing the remembering.
“Luchow’s is gone,” he said. “Mama Leone’s. Now the Four Seasons as we knew it, we’ll never it see again.” He mentioned La Caravelle, an elegant French redoubt that closed in 2004, and the Cattleman, a steakhouse that once had singalong sessions every night. It, too, is long gone.
Next he mentioned Gallaghers, a shrine to Runyonesque celebrities that has a meat locker in its front window on West 52nd Street in Manhattan. It had been a hangout for gangsters and Broadway stars and many who were indebted to the former and in love with the latter. Later, it turned up in the gossip columns because guests like Gloria Vanderbilt, Muhammad Ali, Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Jackson were worth a mention.
But Gallaghers is not gone. Mr. Poll took it over in 2013 and presided over a $5 million renovation. “More of a restoration than a renovation,” he said.
This is not preservation in the way historic preservationists talk about it. Gallaghers has history, but Mr. Poll, 60, bought the place without knowing much more than what he remembered from his boyhood as the son of a restaurateur. In the 1970s, his father ran a restaurant a few blocks away in the Time & Life Building.
“I’d see that meat box,” he said, referring to the locker at the front of Gallaghers. “I’d say, ‘That’s the kind of place I want, so you can display what you bought, show what you were doing at 3 in the morning, 4 in the morning.” As he became the back-of-the-house boss at restaurants he ran, on his own and with his father, he came to regard the front window as a trophy case for days that began early in the meatpacking district.
Once he owned Gallaghers, he went exploring, climbing through two vacant floors in the building above the restaurant that he said “looked like the haunted house from Disneyland.” What he discovered were stacks of old menus, ashtrays, cocktail napkins and matchbooks from different eras in Gallaghers’ long history.
“I started looking up stuff and found that Gallagher was part of Gallagher and Shean, a vaudeville team,” he said. Shean was Al Shean, whose sister was Minnie Marx, the mother of the Marx Brothers. “And a lot of pictures were inscribed to Jack Solomon,” Mr. Poll said, “so I wanted to find out about him.”
The restaurant’s creative director, Amy Zimmerman, began searching eBay for more memorabilia, and a publicist Mr. Poll hired, Regina McMenamin, quickly became an amateur historian, spending months reading old newspaper articles about Gallaghers.
Along the way, they discovered that just before the restaurant changed its name to Gallaghers in November 1927, it was a speakeasy called Club Evelyn. The Evelyn was Evelyn Nesbit. Some consider her the first supermodel, famous at the turn of the century as a figure for sculptors and early fashion photographers — and infamous for an affair with the renowned architect Stanford White.
She later married Harry K. Thaw, a wildly jealous industrialist from Pittsburgh, and in 1906, Thaw fatally shot White at Madison Square Garden. Movie fans know about her from “The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing,” a 1955 film in which she was played by Joan Collins, then 22.
Apparently, Thaw could not get Nesbit out of his mind. In November 1927, soon after he was released from a mental hospital, he showed up at Club Evelyn and got into a row with his own bodyguard. Thaw pounded the table, then raked his arm across it, sending the bottles and glasses flying. Nesbit said that for the hot-tempered Thaw, it was a “mild” tantrum. “Harry has carried on this way before,” she was quoted as saying.
Thaw said the accounts of what had happened were exaggerated, but he did not dispute the size of the check he paid. It was between $200 and $250, equivalent to between $2,850 and $3,564 now.
Ms. McMenamin said she found that the steaks for Club Evelyn were supplied by Helen Gallagher, the soon-to-be-ex-wife of a Broadway star. Jack Solomon, the man Mr. Poll wanted to research because of photographs in the restaurant, was her partner and, later, her husband. And when Nesbit quit, three weeks after the episode with Thaw, the restaurant’s name was changed to Gallaghers. (Nesbit had owned Chez Evelyn with Jules Martin, who was a protégé of the gangster Dutch Schultz, a mastermind of, among things, restaurant shakedown schemes. But when she left, she accused Martin of withholding profits. Schultz later shot and killed Martin, claiming Martin was skimming from the shakedown money.)
Mr. Poll, 60, said he had made overtures for Gallaghers as far back as 2010 before working out a deal in 2013. He said the previous owner had gone so far toward shutting down Gallaghers that the workers had been given 90 days’ notice, as required by their union, Unite Here Local 100.
He and the president of Local 100, Bill Granfield, said they had gotten along well, in contrast to the labor history at another restaurant Mr. Poll runs, the Boathouse, in Central Park. There, a different local, Local 6, went on strike for 44 days in 2011. Mr. Poll attributed the walkout to a “misunderstanding” with union leaders.
“We have since coexisted with respect,” he said.
In renovating Gallaghers, Mr. Poll kept the U-shaped bar and the original grills, which he said use 15 bags of charcoal every day.
But not everything that looks old at Gallaghers is original.
Ms. McMenamin said some customers see the urinals in the men’s room and say, “Babe Ruth then, Derek Jeter now.”
Mr. Poll said that was only half right — Ruth no, Mr. Jeter yes.
He said the urinals had come from the stables at John Hay Whitney’s estate in Manhasset, N.Y., near where he grew up. He bought them at a salvage store in Harlem about 15 years ago and used them in a restaurant he ran on Long Island before moving them to Gallaghers.