Oldest bars



Want to taste 19th Century New York City? Finding a traditional ale house stuck in the past is easy enough; finding the oldest is more problematic, since those bars in a position to make such a claim choose their titles carefully. Which venue is the victor of protracted penmanship is largely irrelevant since they're all worth a pulling up a stool in, so here's a selection of the best:

McSorely’s Old Ale House (7th St between 2nd and 3rd Avenue) swung open its doors in 1854, and claims the title of "New York City's oldest continuously operated saloon". It certainly smells that way. Except for the staff, little has changed in the East Village ale house. Sawdust on the floor. Dust as thick as your thigh. Only two types of ale on tap, light and dark (don't embarrass yourself by asking for a Bud). No wines, no spirits and until 1970, no woman. The walls are cluttered with decades of trinkets and propaganda, sepia-tone photographs of generations dead. A pair of Houdini’s handcuffs rust away on the bar's foot rail. 

The menu, while grudgingly doffing its hat to more contemporary additions, serves up a timeless classic for just a few dollars; a block of ferocious cheddar and crackers, together with a whole onion and complimented by a half-pint glass of mustard so strong it could kill a horse. McSorley's is always popular; stay away in the evenings unless you want to risk wearing your drink. Head there at lunchtime, or early afternoon at the latest - then it’ll be you and the locals, maybe one or two tourists. Take a table in the back, let your eyes play over the memorabilia and fall into the past for an hour or two.

Pete's Tavern (corner of Irving Place and 18th St) claims to be "the oldest continuously operating restaurant and bar in New York City", although nobody stepped up to the bar until 1864. During prohibition in the early 20th century, the bar continued to sneak beer to patrons while posing as a florists. Pete's is just a minute's walk from the spectacle of Gramercy Park and inside is equally as impressive, with the original tin roof and crowded booths. Toothsome grins of A-list patrons line the walls, and faded photos of American author O. Henry greet customers at the table where he penned short stories. Lunchtimes are quiet, so take full advantage of the lull and get stuck into the menu - the burger with bleu cheese will satisfy the most capacious of appetites.

A short stagger from Pete's is Old Town Bar (18th St between Broadway and Park Ave). In nearly 120 years, almost none of the fixtures and fittings have been changed. It's by no means the oldest bar in New York City but certainly a great example - you'll struggle to get seated downstairs so head up the elderly staircase to the first floor restaurant. 

If you want to raise a glass to the "oldest food and/or drinking establishment on the same site in New York" then wander down to Brooklyn Bridge and head to the Bridge Cafe (279 Water Street), the oldest business in NYC. While the name has changed over the centuries, the building has been at the corner of Water Street in Downtown Manhattan since 1794. At that time it was on the banks of the East River but landfill means the river is now two blocks distant. The oldest business in NYC has also dabbled with the oldest profession - the bar served as a brothel for many years in the late 19th century, and was a regular haunt for pirates that terrorised the East River.

Two more shoreline bars of yesteryear are the Ear Inn (326 Spring Street) and the Landmark Tavern (corner of 11th Ave and 46th St). The Ear Inn is a designated Landmark of the City of New York, built in 1817 as a home to an aide of George Washington. It became a bar in the mid-19th century, but renamed nameless and known only to locals as 'The Green Door'. Officially christening the bar would have meant a lengthy review because of its landmark status, so in 1977 the owners painted the curves of the earlier neon BAR sign. The sign then read EAR - the name of the magazine published upstairs at the time - and the inn has been known as such ever since. It's a cramped space with a jaunty nautical theme, but if you can squeeze in you can enjoy live music most nights of the week.

In the 19th Century, the Landmark Tavern served rowdy rabbles of Irish dockworkers who supped at the water's edge in Hell's Kitchen, a neighbourhood dominated at the time by timberyards and slaughterhouses. Landfill means the tavern is now over a block away from the Hudson, and a little lost amongst the axle grease and recent construction work. You should still seek it out, though; the bar brims with character, the restaurant is wholesome, and the building is haunted by a former confederate soldier who was knifed to death in a bar brawl. 

While there are glimpses into Manhattan's 400 year old history scattered across the borough, it's rare to find many amongst the rioting skyline of the Financial District. Little seems to have a sense of history here, but tucked away near Manhattan's southernmost tip, is the island's oldest building. 
The Fraunces Tavern (corner of Pearl Street and Broad Street) has stood in one form or another since 1762. The tavern is best known for the part it played in the American Revolution; a pre-presidential George Washington based himself here after seeing off the British, after which the building provided offices for Congress. The age of the tavern is subject to small print; parts of the building has been torn down and undergone significant modernisation over the centuries; the claim of Manhattan's oldest building is one set by the tavern's own museum.


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