The bar was once owned by a Patrick J. Clarke, an Irish emigrant who was hired in the early 1900s by a Mr. Duneen who ran the saloon. After about ten years working for him Clarke bought the bar and changed the name.
The building is a holdout and is surrounded by 919 Third Avenue, a 47-story skyscraper. Clarke's former owners, the Lavezzo brothers, signed a deal in which the building housing the saloon was sold for $1.5 million and a 99-year lease was signed with Tishman Realty and Construction. However due to financial reverses the Lavezzos were forced to sell their interest to a consortium, which includes George Steinbrenner, Timothy Hutton, and others.
The building was originally a four-story structure. It lost the top two floors when the skyscraper went up in the late 1960s.
The bar has catered to a number of notables over the years:
P.J. Clarke's was used to represent Nat's Bar in the 1945 Ray Milland movie The Lost Weekend, directed by Billy Wilder. Charles R. Jackson, author of the novel on which that movie was based, was a regular at P. J. Clarke's.
Johnny Mercer penned One for My Baby (and One More for the Road) on a napkin while sitting at the bar at P.J. Clarke's (The bartender at that time was named Tommy Joyce, and Mercer reportedly apologized to Joyce, saying "I couldn't get your name to rhyme".)
In the 2000 movie Coyote Ugly, the P.J. Clarke's team played against the Coyote Ugly bartenders.
In the AMC Television series Mad Men, the employees of the Sterling Cooper advertising agency frequent P.J. Clarke's.
There are two more locations of P.J. Clarke's in Manhattan:
As well, there are three restaurants of the same name, presumably borrowed from the original, in Chicago.