I remember the time I helped close down a tavern on a recent Conference Championship Sunday in Westerleigh, Staten Island. Often, I head for a diner or tavern when its closure has been announced, as I treasure these slices of a dying NYC tradition; demographics change, tastes change, and often the next generations of families that run these eateries want to do something else. Thus it was off to Schaffer’s Tavern in Staten Island with my friends Jean and Howard Siegel, who soon after quit the island themselves and moved to New Jersey.
Schaffer’s Tavern was an 83-year-old German restaurant at Victory Blvd. and Bradley Ave. on the south end of Westerleigh, a neighborhood full of interesting architecture from the late-19th and early-20th century that was originally developed as Prohibition Park by those who didn’t favor the consumption of alcohol. Streets were named for presidential candidates of the Prohibition Party such as Clinton B. Fisk, Neal Dow and prominent figures in the Temperance movement. “Dry” states that prohibited liquor also had streets named for them. At first, plots were sold only to Prohibition Party members and temperance followers, but by the early-1900s the character of the neighborhood began to change.
When Prohibition was part of the U.S. Constitution between 1920 and 1933, Staten Island had dozens of speakeasies and island residents voted 20 to 1 for repeal in the 1932 election, which also brought FDR into office. Happy days were not yet in the immediate future, but the hard times could at least be somewhat assuaged.
Into the new permissiveness stepped speakeasy owner George Schaffer, whose establishment was at Victory Blvd. and Jewett Avenue. In 1933 with Prohibition repealed, Schaffer purchased a building a block away on Bradley Ave. that had been a feed and hardware store and opened a German-themed tavern.
Most of the original exterior and interior decor was intact including the tiled floor and bar. A fire in 1998 destroyed the back bar and dining room ceiling, but a local master carpenter restored these elements to near original condition. The menu consisted of typical fare with various wursts and bratens, and a large slate of imported German beers (when in a German restaurant I usually settle for Spaten, which is mild enough for my taste buds, or Weiss, which comes in a tall glass with a bit of fruit juice). Over the years, corned beef had been the most popular item.
The Wall of Fame on the back wall celebrated various beloved bartenders who’d worked at the taps over the decades. Schaffer’s was well-patronized as this was the NFL conference championships Sunday and everyone was getting well-oiled. A Rubsam & Hormann Atlantic Brewery wooden barrel from the 19th-century was anchored into the ceiling; this was one of Staten Island’s many former breweries. There’s also a Schaffer beer barrel though the brewer and the tavernkeeper were not related.
George Schaffer’s grandson “Winky” (who was found behind the bar on occasion) continued to manage the tavern with his two sons until permanent closing time, which occurred in early-2017. Victory State Bank acquired the lease from the Schaffer family and built a new bank on the property, because what Staten Island needs is another bank.
We’re glad NYC still has places like the Old Town Bar (Union Square) and Neir’s Tavern (Woodhaven) and the granddaddy of Staten Island German beer hall/restaurants, Killmeyer’s, in Charleston on the south side of the island.
—Kevin Walsh is the webmaster of the award-winning website Forgotten NY, and the author of the books Forgotten New York (HarperCollins, 2006) and also, with the Greater Astoria Historical Society, Forgotten Queens (Arcadia, 2013)