June 28, 2011

NYC's Oldest Bars

The year is 1891. You've been crammed aboard a ship from Europe to Ellis Island for 40 days. After you dock and locate your new home, what's next? A refreshing pint, of course! 120 years later you can take refuge from the bustling streets of Manhattan and enjoy a cold one at the same pubs those celebrating their New World arrival imbibed in. Here's a guide:

Fraunces Tavern--1762
No doubt many a glass was raised when George Washington bid farewell to his officers here in 1783. Originally built as a home in 1719, Fraunces Tavern is the oldest building in New York. In addition to a pint, you can enjoy a meal and/or a stroll through the upstairs museum to view historic relics and recreations of 18th century rooms.

Ear Inn--1817
Welcome to New York's "oldest working bar." When it opened, this federal-style building sat just 5 feet from the original Hudson River shoreline (now it's a 5 minute walk). The apartment above the bar was used as a smuggler's den, then a brothel, and fun fact: ghosts are periodically spotted. Marked only by a neon "Bar" sign, the Ear was known as The Green Door until 1977 when new owners took over. To avoid the lengthy Landmark Commission's review of a new sign, part of the "B" was painted over, thus becoming "Ear." A glorious no cellphone policy is enforced, which means you can enjoy a drink at the bar or a meal at your table in peace.

Fanelli's Cafe--1847
Fanelli's didn't technically open until 1922, but the space has been a site for alcohol distribution since 1847, when a grocer and spirits dealer occupied the location. That was followed by a porterhouse storefront with an upscale brothel upstairs, and finally, a saloon. The saloon was owned by Nicolas Gerdes, whose name is etched in glass above the entryway. Michael Fanelli was smart to call his bar a "cafe" during the start of Prohibition. Even smarter? A secret room in the cellar housing bathtub gin and bootlegged booze that can still be accessed from a hidden entrance. Enjoy a burger, the gruff bartenders, and a break from the upscale mini-mall that is Soho.

You'll drink the same brew as Abe Lincoln and John Lennon since the offerings remain only light or dark ale. They're served two at a time, and don't worry if you spill, the sawdust on the floor will soak that right up. Old photographs and dusty memorabilia line the walls and if you look up you'll notice a gas lamp adorned with wishbones. The bones have been hung by soldiers heading off to war (as far back as the Civil War), hoping for a safe return. And while many bars admitted women at the end of Prohibition, McSorley's adhered to "Good Ale, Raw Onions and No Ladies" until 1970. Even the former owner, Dorothy O'Connell Kirwan, wasn't allowed in during the 100th anniversary. 1970, I'll drink to that.

Pete's Tavern--1864
In the ongoing we-were-here-first battle, Pete's bills itself as the "longest continually operating bar and restaurant in New York." It survived Prohibition by disguising itself as a flower shop while operating as a speakeasy. O' Henry, Pete's most famous imbiber, wrote "Gift of the Magi" in his favorite booth in 1902 after a 3-year jail sentence in Austin, TX for embezzlement. Not much has changed as evident from the original 30-foot rosewood bar and tin ceiling. Kick back with some of Pete's own 1864 Original House Ale while indulging in Italian-American grub.

P.J. Clarke's--1884
Frank Sinatra, burgers and enormous urinals are what this joint is known for. Patrick J. Clarke, an Irish immigrant, bought the place in the early 1900s after a 10-year bartending stint. Back in the day, you could find Frank Sinatra, a generous tipper, at Table 20. And Johnny Mercer wrote "One For My Baby (and One More For the Road)," a song made famous by Sinatra, on a napkin here.
Originally 4 stories, Clarke's lost 2 when the neighboring 47-story skyscraper went up in the late 60s. In 2002 a year-long renovation resulted in the opening of Sidecar, a "sophisticated dining venue" on the second floor. The first floor was refurbished (goal was to retain the original look) and all bar contents--except for the infamous urinals--were stored in a warehouse in Long Island City until completion. The urinals were too heavy.
Long known for their burgers, P.J. Clarke's regular, Jackie O, would pair hers with a spinach salad. The "beer window" remains, used during Prohibition when wives and kids would bring buckets to be filled. And also to serve women, who weren't allowed inside until the 60s.

White Horse Tavern--1880
Like it's neighbor, the Ear Inn, the White Horse Tavern was originally a destination for longshoremen. In the 50s and 60s it was a haven for writers of the Beat variety: Dylan Thomas, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac; and the song variety: Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison. Today mention White Horse and people may say "That's where Dylan Thomas drank himself to death." Yes, it was. 18 shots of whiskey, 3 doctor visits to the Chelsea Hotel, 1 coma at St. Vincent's Hospital later, and he was dead at 39. But you can still toast the Welsh poet next to his life-sized painting in the Dylan Thomas room, adjacent the bar.
White horses are scattered throughout in the form of figurines, light fixture adornments and wall hangings. The one that watches customers from above the bar was originally placed there to advertise White Horse Scotch Whiskey, still served there today. But watch your alcohol-induced rowdiness or you'll be thrown out, just like Jack Kerouac. In fact, he was booted so many times a patron wrote "GO HOME JACK!!" on the bathroom wall. It's still there today.

Well, it's now time to get off the computer and onto a bar stool. And raise a glass to the immigrants who made this country what it is, and the patrons who made the bars what they are. Cheers!