Drinking allows you to time travel. Some beer, some cocktails, perhaps a shot... and next thing you know, just like the Terminator, you’ve woken up naked, transported to a strange place, no memory of the previous hours. But what if you could time travel before the drinking had even started?
New York City is home to some of the oldest bars in America. Conveniently, six of the city’s nine oldest bars are located walkable distances from each other, around Manhattan’s Greenwich Village area.
Did people bar crawl in the 1860s? Probably not – no one had Google Maps on their cellphones yet. But, if they had, I bet their bar crawls would have looked fairly similar to the one I would do.
In attempting Ye Olde Bar Crawl, I aimed to learn what it was like to drink in olden times, minus the spittoons, knife fights, and syphilitic prostitutes. How much authenticity still remains in New York’s oldest bars? And what have they done to keep up with modern times?
Pete’s Tavern – 11:05 AM
Location: 129 East 18th St. (Irving Pl.)
Opened: 1864 (NYC’s fifth oldest bar)
On this sunny Monday morning, a waiter is setting up outside tables at this famed Italian-American bar. It is said it was here where O. Henry wrote The Gift of the Magi. And by “it is said,” I mean that literally – it’s written in large font on Pete’s black awning. I wonder if one day that awning will denote that it was here where A. Goldfarb first began Ye Olde Bar Crawl? (The awning also calls it “New York’s Oldest Original Bar” which is not true whatsoever – though Pete’s did survive through Prohibition, feigning a life as a flower shop.)
With the bar having just opened at 11 AM, there are no literary legends penning their next masterpieces – in fact, we’re the only customers as we take our seats in front of a picture of Tom Selleck. Despite Magnum PI’s visage, the bar definitely feels like a blast from the past, dark wood and dim lighting, emblematic of a time when people still drank in the middle of the day and thus didn’t want to be seen. Clean and well-appointed, even the Daily Newses are neatly stacked on the bar. There’s an ancient cashier’s booth, but also a digital jukebox and a couple flatscreen TVs. All the while, the employees are clad in black dress shirts and black slacks, like they’re catering a wedding or stagehanding a high school musical.
The beer list is decent as well, mainly big brand craft like Lagunitas IPA, Sam Adams Fresh as Helles, and Sierra Nevada Torpedo. I opt for a “Pete’s 1864 Ale.” Nutty and a little sweet, I’d bet five bucks it’s just Michelob AmberBock.
Old Town Bar – 11:42 AM
Location: 45 East 18th Street (Broadway/Park Ave.)
Opened: 1892 (ninth oldest)
Two blocks west of Pete’s, Old Town likewise survived through Prohibition as a speakeasy. Only three other customers are in the bar when we enter, blue collar-types drinking boilermakers with a seriousness I admire. Old Town is nowhere close to as quaint and charming as Pete’s. The latter I’d actually take my wife to for a nice dinner; the former, well, I suppose it’s a good place to drink a boilermaker before noon on a Monday.
I’m not in the mood for a boilermaker yet, but luckily the beer list is solid. I opt for a Spaten Lager, which the crusty-but-kind grey-haired bartender pulls for me.
I’ve quickly learned that old timey bars specialize in the whole-buncha-shit-on-the-walls aesthetic; Old Town particularly has some really great old shit on their walls. The backbar is a full mirror that’s foggy and speckled with fingerprints, but must be twenty feet high, soaring toward the tin-tiled original ceiling. While the other wall features early-century college pennants, antique maps of Manhattan, long-ago campaign posters (“Vote William J. Meagher, 13th Assembly District”), and even a sign congratulating Liam Neeson – a regular – for being “our best actor.”
The most notable aspect of Old Town is that House of Pain filmed their Jump Around video here. Wait, no, the most notable aspect of Old Town are its 104-year-old full-length urinals, once honored by Mayor Bloomberg. I honor them myself before we move on.
White Horse Tavern – 12:45 PM
Location: 567 Hudson (Eleventh Ave.)
Opened: 1880 (seventh oldest)
White Horse surely has a reputation as the most gritty of New York’s old-time bars. Jack Kerouac made it a habit of getting 86ed from here for disorderly conduct. Dylan Thomas died after slamming eighteen whiskey shots here. But on this Monday at lunchtime, the bar’s sidewalk dining area is full of... families. Eating hot dogs and hamburgers, drinking sodas. Inside, the bar is mostly old men watching day baseball and dissecting pitching match-ups.
White Horse Tavern is, quite frankly, a fairly charmless bar aside from the numerous white horse busts and figurines scattered throughout it. Still, the tavern has no problem capitalizing on its reputation. You can’t pay with a credit card but you can shell out plenty of cash for White Horse-branded hoodies, t-shirts, hats, and beanies, that are about as fashionable as a company softball uniform. (Don’t worry if you’re short, the bar has an ATM that strictly dispenses $50s, like strip club funny money.)
Like most old bars, the White Horse has a “humorous” sign displayed near the register. Whereas McSorley’s goes for “Be good or be gone,” White Horse opts for “Beware pickpockets and loose women.” I have a Hoegaarden, unfortunately don’t encounter any women of questionable repute, don’t for a second consider buying an overpriced memento, and leave after drinking half my pint.
Julius’ – 1:30 PM
Location: 159 West 10th Street (Waverly Pl.)
Opened: 1840 (third oldest)
With these old institutions in such a hip part of town, sprinkled amongst of-the-moment restaurants, gastropubs, and cocktail dens, sometimes it’s easy to blow right past them. As a city resident, I’ve done it numerous times myself, without a second thought. Julius’, however, is hard to miss, what with its pastel yellow stucco exterior, looking like cake frosting that was spread too quickly.
I’ll be honest, I might not have realized Julius’ was a gay bar if I didn’t know that fact already. Sure, I would have thought it a tad curious The Ronettes’ Be My Baby was loudly blasting over the speakers as we walked in, while Spartacus played on the televisions. Okay, yeah, I would have eventually noticed the clientele at this hour was 100% men. But aren’t mid-day bars typically dominated by males? Then again, there were a lot more neatly-trimmed mustaches than you typically see. I guess I would have probably figured it all out when the grill man greeted us with a sing-songy “Talk ta’ me, boys” when we went to order lunch from him. And, there are a couple rainbow flags on display, so duh.
Whatever the case, gay or straight, Julius’ is a fantastic spot! Inviting, welcoming, totally relaxing. The back of the bar is lined with “Cheers!” in various languages (“Prosit,” “Salute,” “Sláinte,” etc.), like a bar version of that scene from Cabaret. Oh god, did I just reference Cabaret? All kidding aside, Julius’ is an important bar in the city’s gay history – New York’s oldest gay bar, one which established the right of homosexuals to drink at bars no less! – and still vital today.
For my needs, however, my burger was delicious (and only six bucks), my Blue Moon was ice-cold and adorned with the biggest damn orange wedge I’ve ever seen, and no one accused us of any sort of heterosexual Columbusing. A win-win all around.
McSorley’s Old Ale House – 2:42 PM
Location: 15 East 7th (Second/Third Ave.)
Opened: 1862 (fourth oldest)
If none of the other spots have felt like tourist traps, McSorley’s is a big concern. Even from a block away we can see the rubes and hayseeds flowing into the Irish bar, surely having read about it in a Fodor’s they checked out from their local library. I must say, I’ve been to McSorley’s many times in my life – out-of-towners always want locals to take them – and I’m hardly looking forward to another visit.
Having said that...I quickly discover, yet again, that the bar is undoubtedly excellent. Yes, it’s packed with tourists in cargo shorts and fanny packs. Yes, a MILFy woman sidles up beside me at the stand-up bar and tries to order a red wine, then a vodka tonic, before being told they only serve beer. But, nothing feels phony about this place, aside from the pesky mis-truth that it opened in 1854.
While the White Horse Tavern hawks t-shirts and other schwag, McSorley’s doesn’t go for any of that nonsense. They famously sell two beers, “light” and “dark,” which you must purchase two at a time and pay for in cash. The floor is sawdust-covered, the trinkets on the walls and ceiling are dusty (though not as dusty as they once were), the apron-clad bartender is surly, even if it is in a bit of a wink-wink play-acting way.
I actually feel like calling off the crawl and whiling away the rest of the day here, something I can’t say for any of the other bars on our crawl. It’s cozy and comforting to drink at McSorley’s, especially on a sunny day as the light streams in through the picture windows, coating everything in a sepia glaze that befits the past era we’re trying to recreate.
Alas, after two glasses of “light,” we must be on our way.
Ear Inn – 3:43 PM
Location: 326 Spring Street (Washington/Greenwich)
Opened: 1817 (second oldest)
The thing about these old bars is, you really don’t know what is apocryphal bullshit and what isn’t. Had O. Henry truly written short stories at Pete’s? Did Dylan Thomas actually do eighteen shots? Are those Old Town urinals really centenarians?! Heck, most of these bars’ “est.” dates are easily-disproved fibs.
But, it’s like, these are just bars and many of the tall tales associated with them are quite amusing. So why not believe them?
The Ear Inn has two such pieces of lore. The first, that to avoid pesky permitting, one-time owner Rip Hayman partially painted over the “BAR” sign, turning it to “EAR.” The second, and less believable, is that patrons who died in the bar used to be pushed out the back door and into the Hudson River.
The Ear Inn has so many knick-knacks in every nook and cranny that it can feel like you’re drinking inside a rummage sale. Still, the Inn is a respectable joint with landmark status and a fairly upscale food menu. Happy hour is approaching when we arive and the bar is filling up. We get two seats next to a woman sad-devouring a juicy cheeseburger, one made with high-end Pat LaFrieda beef no less.
Like the other old bars, The Ear Inn’s beer list is surprisingly modern. Lagunitas IPA has unexpectedly appeared at every bar we’ve been to (save McSorley’s), while Goose Island IPA and Stella Artois have been at most. Chalk that up as a win to multinational conglomerates I suppose. Ones not even around when any of these bars first opened.
From 1933 to 1940, The Ear Inn was actually also the site of a now-defunct brewery named Fidelio, which is oddly the word Tom Cruise had to utter to gain access to that awesome rich people orgy in Eyes Wide Shut. That is neither here nor there.
We order Brooklyn Brewery Ear Inn Ales, which the bartender confides are really just Brooklyn Summer Ales with a specially-branded tap handle. After six old bars and six new-ish beers, neither Cory nor I am drunk or disorderly, and instead of getting pushed out the back door and into the Hudson, we take the B train home to Brooklyn.
AB InBev is an investor in October through its venture capital arm, Zx Ventures.