Everyone’s favorite restauranteur, the iconic Jimmy Neary, as remembered by one of his fans.
Jimmy Neary: September 14, 1930 – October 1, 2021
Jimmy came to the U.S. from Sligo, Ireland in 1954, worked hard – starting as a porter at the New York Athletic Club, worked as a bartender and ultimately bought a building on East 57th Street. He opened Neary’s restaurant on East 57th Street on St. Patrick’s Day in 1967. It quickly became known as the best Irish restaurant in the city.
He worked virtually every day and on October 1, after working on September 30 passed away in his sleep at age 91.
He hosted presidents, governors, senators, mayors, priests and bishops, writers, entertainers, athletes and sports team owners and all of us from the neighborhood – as well as visitors from all over the world who heard about the iconic Jimmy. And he treated all of us with the same happy welcome and warmth.
As a neighbor, I dined at Neary’s almost weekly (the signature lamb chops are the best as is the corned beef that you can get every day). We rubbed elbows with Mayor Bloomberg, Cardinal Dolan, Kathie Lee Gifford, Mary Higgins Clark as well as many other neighbors who loved Jimmy and Neary’s. We all relished in hearing Jimmy’s stories and jokes and enjoyed his hugs and guide to the newest photos and mementos in the restaurant. We always enjoyed the photos of Jimmy on Mayor Bloomberg’s private plane for a quick trip to Sligo. We loved hearing about Kathie Lee Gifford writing the title song for the documentary about Jimmy – “The Dream at the End of the Rainbow.” And we loved when Jimmy let us try on the Giants’ Super Bowl rings – that the Mara family gifted to Jimmy. We also loved attending Jimmy’s annual “surprise” birthday parties and spending time with his wonderful family and terrific staff.
When I broke my ankle, Jimmy called to see how I was doing. When my husband was in the hospital, Jimmy called or texted regularly. And I always brought Jimmy jokes so he could share them with his staff and other guests. During the pandemic, I texted the jokes to Jimmy as his iPhone proficiency improved so he always got the latest jokes.
When I heard about Jimmy’s passing from my neighbor and friend, the word started to spread. And spread it did with the growing tributes to Jimmy in front of Neary’s.
Two bouquets became 10, became plants and more bouquets and rosary beads on the door and a giant rubber finger with M&Ms with Jimmy’s face from years ago. And the flowers multiplied. The family updated the outside menu message board first with Jimmy’s passing, then the wake and funeral details.
Living nearby, I passed Neary’s a couple of times a day and there were always people reading the message board and taking pictures.
40+ year employee and de facto Neary’s family member Mary O’Connor was often out-front helping Una post the updates.
That’s the impact Jimmy had. He was the rock star of 57th Street and with all respect to Mayor Bloomberg, Jimmy was OUR MAYOR of East 57th Street.
The buzz has continued. As I dine out every night, my rotation has me at other neighborhood spots.
The owners and managers of these places all praised Jimmy admiring his work ethic and agreeing we never thought Jimmy would die. We had him pegged at after 100, not an energetic and vibrant 91 years young.
I tell young people all the time that the key to a long healthy life is work doing something you love – because it’s joy, not work.
I hope some of them listen and follow Jimmy’s example and what I try to do.
Work for joy!
To have the true respect of other neighborhood restauranteurs is one of the highest compliments.
Anyone in a competitive business knows that the praise from those who could criticize, but don’t, is a lovely feeling. They may be in the same space but aren’t competitors because Jimmy was unique without any direct competition
I will see these other restaurants’ customers and neighbors and know we share something special – even at other places we enjoy hearing folks at the next table talk about Jimmy, as I experienced tonight.
I can only imagine how long the line will be at Neary’s for the grand reopening – that Jimmy’s daughter Ann Marie said would be soon. As she said “dad wouldn’t be happy they were closed for over a week” – even to grieve.
It was an honor to attend Jimmy’s wake at Frank E. Campbell (Jimmy would have loved that it was a full house) and it looked beautiful. I also attended Jimmy’s funeral mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Saturday, October 9. It was also a full house – as full as St. Patrick’s Day at Neary’s – and a beautiful tribute to an amazing man who lived such a full life.
The flowers, music and remarks were all amazing. There were more priests on the altar than any of us have ever seen live in New York – so deserving for such a good and kind man. Jimmy’s grandchildren and senior staff from Neary’s participated. The speakers, Jimmy’s daughter Ann Marie, son-in-law Tom and Cardinal Dolan and Mayor Bloomberg praised Jimmy’s faith, work ethic and love of people and life. They also got some laughs appropriate for Jimmy’s charming Irish sense of humor. Such as – “you’re always welcome in Neary’s – unless you’re wearing shorts and flip flops.” And “St. Peter can take a break, because Jimmy can welcome people to heaven.”
Not often does one attend a funeral that you can watch on YouTube. It’s also rare that the streets of New York are cordoned off around the cathedral for a funeral procession on Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue. Jimmy loved his life as his obituary says. And Jimmy would have loved his funeral and the outpouring of love.
May Jimmy rest in peace in heaven, reunited with his wife, Eileen. And I have every confidence that Jimmy’s legacy will live on at Neary’s with his beautiful family at the helm.
Joanne Davis, neighbor and friend