I used to be baffled whenever I’d walk by tacky theme restaurants like the Jekyll and Hyde Club or the Slaughtered Lamb Pub in the Village. You’d expect to find them in Times Square, but on West 4th and Jones? Surely there’s an organic frozen yogurt stand or overly-priced Thai place that would be more appropriate. But in fact, theme restaurants originated in the West Village in the late 19th century, when restaurants like the Black Cat, the Mad Hatter Tearoom, and the Wigwam catered to tourists looking for a little taste of Bohemia. But the theme restaurant craze really took off in the late 1910s, largely due to one true New York eccentric.
Don Dickerman was born in Illinois in 1893. After attending Andover and Yale, he came to Manhattan to study at the New York Art School, where he roomed with a promising young artist named Norman Rockwell. He married 13 times, proudly noting it was one more wife than Blackbeard. One marriage lasted two hours according to his granddaughter Dottie. “He got married and then just left her at Grand Central Station.”
In the late 1910s, Dickerman turned from art to restauranteering, opening a series of gaudy themed eateries in the West Village. There was the Blue Horse, where diners ate in stalls and the orchestra wore blinders. The Village Barn on 8th Street had square dancing patrons, yodeling waiters, and nightly turtle races. Add to that the County Fair (where he discovered the crooner Rudy Vallee), The Big Apple, the Daffy Dill, and the Heigh Ho Club, and Dickerman was soon rushing back and forth between his clubs in a second-hand ambulance, blaring his sirens all the way.
But Dickerman’s most extravagant club was the Pirate’s Den. Ol’ Don was an absolute nut for pirates. He could typically be seen tromping through the West Village dressed in an eyepatch, gold hoop earrings, and a billowy blouse tied up with a sash. He started a (not-quite-successful) movement to get Captain William Kidd posthumously pardoned by the mayor of New York. He purchased a five-masted schooner to hunt for buried treasure in Novia Scotia, but failed to obtain finance the trip. Dickerman eventually went on a real high seas adventure in 1925, joining Captain William Beebe aboard the Arcturus to study ocean life around the Galapagos and the Cocos Islands. Beebe hired Dickerman as an assistant artist, creating detailed illustrations of fish, but Dickerman’s real desire was hunting for the buried treasure of pirate Benito “Bloody Sword” Bonito. He found no treasure, but he did harpoon an 18-foot-long manta ray from a rowboat, dragging the 2,310-lb. beast two miles while keeping the creature stunned by beating it with a baseball bat.
“Captain Don” opened the Pirate’s Den as a coffee shop in 1917, largely to display his paintings and hand-crafted toys, but he soon saw the potential for a much grander entertainment venue. A coffin marked the subterranean entrance to the Pirate’s Den (the upper floors contained a small magazine called the Ink Pot and an Arabian-themed coffee shop called Aladdin’s Lamp.) For a 75-cent cover charge (a dollar on Saturdays), an eyepatched host would lead you through the three candlelit “decks” of the restaurant – Main Deck, Gun Deck, and Hurricane Deck – each designed to simulate a massive pirate ship, complete with Jolly Rogers dangling from the rigging and caches of cutlasses stuck to the walls. He would seat you at a table with a treasure map for a tablecloth, handing you a menu and the Rules of the Deck (Rule VII: “Any attempt to locate the hidden vaults or seize any personal property of the Pirates will be punished by loss of eyesight or imprisonment in the Black Dungeon.”) Meanwhile, the orchestra played from a large freight elevator, perpetually sliding up and down between the three decks. In her 1925 guide to Greenwich Village, Anna Alice Chapin recalls interacting with a typical waiter, usually moonlighting artists with patches over their eyes, gold hoops through their ears, and swords shoved in their belts that were forever in danger of slicing diners open:
“The pirate who serves you (incidentally he writes poetry and helps to edit a magazine among other things) apologizes for the lack of a Stevensonian parrot.
‘A chap we know is going to bring one back from the South Sea Islands,’ he declares seriously. “And we are going to teach it to say, ‘Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight!’”
The Pirate’s Den never got that parrot, but it did have a 100-year-old Panamanian macaw named Robert that cursed at the customers.
New Yorkers loved and loathed the Pirate’s Den in equal measure. Dining in New York (1930) called it “the most colorful, fairy-tale-ish place in the Village,” and Mayor John Hylan celebrated Thanksgiving here. Others were not so fond of it. “Out with the Pirate’s Den,” thundered a magistrate in 1918. “It is a plague spot in this good old Village.” In 1921, that same magistrate fined several visitors for illegally parking in front of the restaurant. “Didn’t you feel ashamed of yourself for doing so?” he asked one. “I sure did, your Honor,” the visitor replied, though he’d only parked for a few minutes. “It was long enough for me.” The police raided the Den twice, once in 1921 for “conducting a pleasure resort without a dancing license” and again in 1923 for allowing his staff to carry deadly weapons. The next day, the Times headline ran “PIRATES DISARMED IN VILLAGE LAIR: Meekly Give up Swords, Pistols and Cutlasses to Raiding Police.” Only Prohibition agents ignored the Pirate’s Den, which never served anything harder than a cold sarsaparilla.
In April 1929, a fire swept through the Pirate’s Den, destroying thousands of dollars in pirate memorabilia, scorching the interior, and suffocating Dickerman’s pet birds. A few months later, the stock market crashed, and Dickerman was forced to sell the location and declare bankruptcy in 1932, claiming only “a few suits of clothes three or four years old.”
Dickerman bounced back in the 1940s with new restaurants in Miami and Los Angeles, but his New York empire had lost its crowning jewel. Today, the old Pirate’s Den now houses the popular gay bar Pieces. It’s not a bad bar, but are there swearing birds? I think not.