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Where everyone knows your game

Posted Feb 1, 2014

Since he owns a bar in the East Village (think a flat Mount Adams when it comes to Cincinnati's eclectic equivalent), Ryan Birkenhead is prepared for just about anything the human race can muster.


Ryan Birkenhead with Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn at Phebe's Tavern & Grill.

NEW YORK — Since he owns a bar in the East Village (think a flat Mount Adams when it comes to Cincinnati's eclectic equivalent), Ryan Birkenhead is prepared for just about anything the human race can muster.

When he walks out of his office and sees the owner of the adopted team of Phebe's Tavern & Grill bearing gifts, he takes it with the ease of an Andrew Hawkins stride. After Katie Blackburn presents her Paul Brown Stadium Pro Shop bag with an A.J. Green jersey and a Vontaze Burfict autographed football, Birkenhead smiles a proprietor's smile.

"Very cool. He had some year, didn't he?" Birkenhead asks as he flips the Tez Ball into his hands. "We'll put this stuff up with pride."

Blackburn is sitting with friends from Cincinnati, Cindy and Mike Barton and their daughter Kate, along with Bengals director of marketing Brian Sells. They walked downtown from midtown, where the NFL has gathered to pay homage to the Super Bowl, on a pilgrimage of love. Not to mention hunger and they have found themselves in kind of The Bat Cave.

That's it. They are in Gotham and they are talking to Alfred The Butler, disguised as a 39-year-old transplanted New Englander who worships Big Papi but lives in the Big Apple. This is one of the 345 days or so of the year Birkenhead has his place looking like a bar perched on the corner of East Fourth and Bowery. The only hint it serves as the New York City Bureau of Bengaldom is a framed autographed photo of head coach Marvin Lewis lurking behind a bottle of the high end Scotch they, yes, stash on the top shelf.

On those other 20 days, Game Days as he calls them, Alfred/Birkenhead transforms the Bengals into the Bowery Boys complete with helpings of homemade chili dip where you can hear them "run, pass or boot" after every TD thanks to a musical playlist lifted from PBS.

The Bengals flag that flew from the roof during this past run to the AFC North title is now in the basement, but not the hopes for next season.

"There'll be a renovation this year and at some point a little portion of this place will have the colors," Birkenhead says. "They've been too good to us."

Orange and black has helped Birkenhead stay out of the red. The Bengals aren't playing this Sunday, of course, but if Phebe's can draw even 60 percent of the crowd of about 200 that gathers for the Bengals for the Broncos and Seahawks, "we'll be happy campers."

(phebesnyc.com can get you hooked up for 2014.)

"To be honest," Birkenhead says, "we haven’t felt the effects (of the Super Bowl) much down here in the East Village. All the action is up in Times Square. I have friends that have been running promotions all week trying to get people in. There's so much to do up there. It's honestly probably just a better time."

ORANGE OASIS

But not a better time than at 1 p.m. on Sunday during the NFL season. Not for a kid who long-snapped in the old Queen City Conference growing up on Blake and Kitna and Carson and Chad and Dillon and Rudi Ali Johnson and living in NYC. Then there is no better time during the week.

"A Midwesterner's oasis for three hours a week," is the way the old long snapper tells it. "On an island of $12 martinis, the Bud Lights are three bucks. It's a place where everybody knows Gio's name. Where they sing 'Hang on Sloopy' after the third quarter. It's where you can close your eyes and feel like you're back home in Paul Brown Stadium. Welcome to The (Concrete) Jungle."

The long snapper is the legacy of three Cincinnati kids just starting out from college a decade ago in The Apple. Jim Schroder, a real estate investor, and Michael Pellegrino, a lawyer, knew each other from St. Xavier High School. Schroder went to Yale with Todd Lippincott, an investment advisor who went to Indian Hill High School. Bengals fans all. These guys may be the founding fathers of Phebe's as we know it, but the date isn't as clear as July Fourth,

"We couldn't go to a bar in New York that didn’t have Steelers fans," Schroder says. "So we said we're going to scour the city to find a place that didn't watch games on Sunday. And we found this place in The Bowery. I think it was the 2005 or 2006 season."

When they found Birkenhead, it was like Lewis finding Burfict. The perfect fit. Birkenhead, 39, an old long snapper himself from Upstate New York's tiny St. Lawrence University, was looking, too. He had been through Red Sox fans and Patriots fans. When the Bosox bartender left, he took that Bucky Dent angst with him, as well as his following.

"I have a lot of good friends who are Patriots fans, but they were nasty," Birkenhead says. "Sore losers, I felt, and I say it to their faces. They wouldn't stick around much after games. It was like a job. They'd come in here barking out orders. When the Cincinnati folks came, it was refreshing. For the most part, it was a much easier crowd to deal with. Unless you screwed up the songs."

Back then, at the creation, all Schroder and his guys wanted was the back room with the sound up. Birkenhead discounted the drinks and food and it was a marriage made in Who Dey.

"We guaranteed him 40 to 50 people," says Schroder, who was in charge of the email blasts. "In three weeks it was over 100."

The guys convinced Birkenhead to order Cincinnati Chili and they introduced him to the sour cream chili dip. When Birkenhead couldn't get a jar or vat of the stuff and had to keep ordering the cans, he cut down on the cost and "we perfected our own chili." They also gave him a list of the stadium songs to wheel out at appropriate moments in the game.

"There was this girl from Argentina who worked for me for years. Beautiful little girl, but she had no idea how football worked," Birkenhead says. "We had training sessions. I sat down with her with football rules. She said, 'I got this, I got this.' It was the first game and I just threw her into the fire. The Bengals scored a touchdown and she played like 'Snoopy' or something like that instead of the touchdown song."

Birkenhead can be forgiven for not knowing about "Hang on Sloopy." Here's a guy from Vermont who lived in Boston and his favorite team is the Cowboys. You know there's something about this place because placed lovingly above the back bar is a framed photo of Red Sox great Ted Williams as a fighter pilot and another with the Yankees' Joe DiMaggio, gifts from his Boston buddies when the place opened.      

"Growing up, the Patriots were horrendous and the Cowboys were America's Team," Birkenhead says almost apologetically to Blackburn. "Tony Dorsett was my guy."

ROAD SHOW

No problem for Blackburn, a lifelong Cincinnatian who is more interested hearing about his first trip to Cincinnati as an owner of a Bengals bar. Birkenhead came in for the Dallas game in December 2012, when the crew at Phebe's drowned in a sea of Bud during the 20-19 loss. He wore his Phebe's shirt with "Welcome to the Jungle" on the back and was greeted as a conquering hero by those who had been in his place. He left a couple shirts behind.

"Every year we have a group that goes to one game a year to watch the Cowboys," he says. "Outside of New Orleans, Cincinnati is one of our better trips."

Birkenhead has no doubt every NFL team has a bar in New York. He even knows of one place home to the Saints and Vikings.

"I don't know how they pull that off," he says. "I've seen some fights roll out of that place."

He has a buddy who has a Cowboys bar on 27th, but after Birkenhead helps set up Phebe's on Game Days he doesn't go there. He ends up in what he calls "a hole in the wall" close by that isn't a football bar but the bartender puts on one of the TVs for him.

"I don't go there, either, because Cowboys fans are nuts as well and they haven't been doing great lately," Birkenhead says. "It can get a little ugly in there."

Phebe's has had its moments, but not many from what you hear. Birkenhead thought for this past season he would bring in a deejay to play music during the commercials and there was a revolt. Keep it the same. There's even been a bit of overflow to a 7th Street bar called "Standings" that has been known to get a bit of a Bengals crowd the past three or four years.

But Phebe's is the Great White Way of the Orange and Black. Always packed on Sundays, Birkenhead usually knows your name and where you sit if you're a regular. But he always keeps one VIP table reserved for the three guys that started it all even though none of them are in New York anymore. Schroder, who lives in Atlanta, came back for a game a year or two ago, but it isn't often.

"You have to have some kind of connection to those guys and you can sit there," Birkenhead says. "This place is packed and you'll look over and there'll be maybe one person sitting there."

Blackburn also gives him a bunch of Bengals ballcaps and tells him she wishes she could come to a game here. But she is always with her team. Birkenhead certainly understands that concept.

"Thanks so much for coming and bringing this stuff," says the New Englander who owns a Bengals bar in New York City as naturally as a PBS flag flying from a roof in the Bowery.

"A lot of people think it's odd," Birkenhead says. "But if there's anywhere you could do it, it's here."

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