History comes alive in New York’s old-time taverns

Story and photos by Rich Grant

London has “public houses” that developed into pubs primarily for the locals, but New York’s fame is the tavern – described as “a clean, well-lighted place where a visitor can feel welcome with a good meal and drink.” Among lots of great taverns around New York that fit that bill, here are four must-see spots.

Fraunces Tavern Museum (54 Pearl St.)

It’s not the best bar in the city for a drink, but it is one of three that claim to be the oldest. Opened in 1719, it was originally called the Queen’s Head. The Sons of Liberty plotted a revolution here and in 1775 the British fired an 18-pound cannon ball into the roof.  But it is most renowned as the place where George Washington bid an emotional farewell to his officers on Dec. 4, 1783. The most famous party of the Revolution was held upstairs in the Long Room, which has been re-created as it appeared on that afternoon. A museum has exhibits on New York’s role in the Revolution, along with one of George’s false teeth and a lock of his hair.

The building was restored in 1904 and how much of it is authentic can be debated, but it is one of a very few structures in New York to survive the Revolution. When the British captured the city in 1776 (backed by the largest armada and invading army the world had known to that point), retreating Americans set fire to the town and much of it was destroyed.

Fraunces Tavern witnessed more violence in 1975 when it was bombed by the Armed Forces of Puerto Rican National Liberation and four people were killed.

Today, the restaurant and bar have a colonial feel with wooden tables and chairs, and there are flags and paintings, and (who knows why?) fake African animal heads in the bar, but you can’t deny the sense of history.

More info: www.frauncestvernmuseum.org

McSorley’s Old Ale House (15 E. 7th St.)

Both Abe Lincoln and John Lennon have bellied up to the bar here (standing room only, please, no bar stools), as have Presidents Franklin and Teddy Roosevelt and John Kennedy. Woody Guthrie played guitar at the front table, and e.e. cummings wrote a poem about the place.

Opened in 1854, McSorley’s is the longest continually operated saloon in New York…and looks it. The floor is still covered with sawdust, there’s a genuine coal- burning stove, and the walls are a museum with everything from the handcuffs used to tie up Houdini to an authentic wanted poster for John Wilkes Booth.

Women weren't admitted in the bar until 1970 (an early 1920s slogan was:  “Good Ale, Raw Onions and No Ladies”). It took a lawsuit and a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court to change that. The bar’s revenge? They allowed women, but didn’t offer a ladies room.  A real women’s room was not added until 1986.

For its entire history, McSorley’s has served only one beverage – ale. Ordering is simple, you simply say “Light or dark.” In another quirk of the bar, you need to buy two beers at a time, though they are smallish mugs, about 10 ounces each.

Inside the oldest continually operated saloon in New York.

As you would expect, the place attracts a large crowd and seems to be a mecca for college students. It’s best enjoyed on a cold afternoon before the rush hour, with the late afternoon sun streaming through the windows and the coal heat from the stove warming the room. Pet one of the house cats, eat some peanuts and read e.e. cummings’ poem: “I was sitting in mcsorleys. outside it was New York and beautifully snowing. inside snug and evil.”

McSorley’s is a block from St. Mark’s Place, ground zero of the hippie movement in the 60s. The block between Third and Second is where Andy Warhol and Yoko Ono (pre John Lennon) staged hippie happenings, and the nearby Fillmore East was where the Who premiered their rock opera Tommy. From the funky t-shirt shops, costume stores, tattoo parlors, and basement shops, the street still has that same electric, edgy, crazy, punk-goth feel. You won’t be surprised that this was Madonna’s first New York neighborhood.

More info: www.mcsorleysnewyork.com

Pete’s Tavern (129 E. 18th St.)

Pete’s never attracted George Washington or Abe Lincoln, but it has been featured in Seinfeld, Sex in the City and Law and Order, which makes it a New York classic. Opened in 1864, Pete’s claims to be the longest continually opened bar and restaurant in the city. (Pete’s stayed open during prohibition, disguised as a flower shop. McSorley’s was operated as a speakeasy.)

Perhaps the most famous event occurred at Pete’s in 1904 when bar regular O. Henry came in and wrote the classic short story, Gift of the Magi, in one sitting at his favorite booth, the first one in from the front doors. Sit at the 30-foot-long rosewood bar and try their 1864 Original House Ale.

More info: www.geocities.com/petestavern.geo/historyb

The Algonquin Hotel (59 W. 44th St.)

Up for another pint? Tipplers have been coming to the elegant Algonquin for close to 110 years. In the 1920s the hotel was home to the “Algonquin Round Table,” where the city’s greatest wits and writers gathered to tell jokes and trade insults, many of which worked their way into novels, films and plays. Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Harpo Marx and George S. Kaufman (who wrote the Marx Brothers movies) were just some of the regulars who lunched here. The lobby bar has been maintained in the same style. Waiters will point out the location of the original “Round Table” and there is a historic display case telling the story.

But best of all are the bar’s cocktail napkins, which have one of the great Dorothy Parker lines that originated in this room: "I love a martini -- but two at the most. Three I'm under the table; Four, I'm under the host."

More info: www.algonquinhotel.com.

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