Walking and Drinking Beer in New York’s Historic Taverns
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…
…while searching to find a nicely poured pint in a quiet bar with a wonderful little neighborhood to stroll around afterwards. Well, maybe not, but Emma Lazarus wrote those lines in 1883 to fundraise for the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal, and they certainly epitomize New York’s historic appeal. It’s been burned to the ground, occupied by military forces and survived numerous terrorist attacks. In movies, New York has been frozen, flooded and invaded by apes and aliens. But still, everyone wants to come here. Last year, the city attracted 46 million visitors from every country of the world, speaking 300 different languages.
London has Public Houses that developed into pubs primarily for the locals, but New York’s fame is the tavern – a “clean, well-lighted place” where over the years the city’s many visitors could feel welcome with a good meal and drink. Here are some great historic taverns, along with a speakeasy, an Irish pub or two and some other fine stops.
Fraunces Tavern Museum, http://www.frauncestvernmuseum.org/
Well, it’s not the best bar in the city for a drink, but it is one of three with a claim to being 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 the afternoon that wine and tears flowed freely. 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 in any way from 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 (God knows why) fake African animal heads in the bar, but you can’t deny the sense of history.
Neighborhood Walks in Lower Manhattan
The great thing about Fraunces Tavern is that it is in the heart of Lower Manhattan. Your first walk should be up the gangplank to board the Staten Island ferry for the free, 5-mile trip back and forth across the harbor. At Staten Island, you simply follow a series of ramps and re-board immediately; the whole trip takes about an hour and offers views of the Statue, the skyline and whatever ships are heading into port. On the ride back to New York, go down to water level for a very different view of Manhattan.
Battery Park is adjacent to the ferry and has one of New York’s old forts – Castle Clinton – and two emotional memorials. The Sphere designed by Fritz Koenig was a monument to world peace that stood in the plaza in front of the World Trade Center. In the 9-11 attacks, it was buried under tons of rubble, torn apart, bent and scraped, but it has been dug up, reassembled and now sits in the park as a testament to New York’s resiliency. Nearby, the Merchant Marine Memorial is truly eerie. Commemorating the 7,000 merchant marines who died in World War II, it depicts a drowning sailor with his arms stretched out of the sea. Depending on the tide, you see half of his body or just his arm and neck reaching out for help.
New York’s famous Broadway starts at the intersection of Battery Park and Bowling Green, and here you’ll find the 7,000 pound bronze Charging Bull sculpture by Arturo Di Modica that has become the symbol of a bull market on Wall Street. Rub its nose for luck, and continue up Broadway to the beautiful Trinity Church, where Alexander Hamilton is buried. It’s a good place to consider how strange America is that we have a treasury secretary on the $10 bill who was murdered by a former vice president (Hamilton made it clear before his famous “duel” with Aaron Burr that he would not fire; former VP Burr still deliberately aimed and shot him down.)
If you need any more evidence of America’s financial strangeness, cross Broadway and head down Wall Street. The famous flag on the New York Stock Exchange with Washington’s statue in the foreground (he was inaugurated as president on these steps) have become an iconic photo of New York. If you look closely, you’ll see the stock exchange is on Broad Street, not Wall Street. Less well known is that yet another of New York’s terrorist attacks took place here in 1920 when 31 people were killed by a bomb placed in a horse and carriage. The building across the street from Federal Hall still has pot marks from the explosion.
Anywhere else in the nation – or the world – Federal Hall National Monument would be famous. In New York, the 1842 modified version of the Parthenon is overshadowed. But climb the steps and go in – the rotunda is amazing, it’s free, there’s a lot of history and (always important in New York) there are clean, free public restrooms.
It’s a ten-minute walk to South Street Seaport, which is a bit touristy, but it’s hard to beat the views of The Peking (the second largest sailing ship ever built) against the skyline. There are plenty of bars on Pier 17 with views of the Brooklyn Bridge or the East River, and the schooner Pioneer goes out on day sails into the harbor. The cobblestone pedestrian mall, old 18th century buildings and squawking seagulls remind you that New York was once one of the biggest commercial harbors in the world.
McSorley’s Old Ale House, 15 E. 7th Ave., http://www.mcsorleysnewyork.com/
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. No women were 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. I can remember many nights in the 70s standing guard for women friends outside what became the most interesting co-ed bathroom in New York. 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.
As you would expect, the place attracts a large crowd and seems to be a mecca for college students. It’s best on a cold afternoon before the rush, 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.”
Walks Around the East Village
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. Forty years ago, as a long-haired college student, I spent many evenings here. 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.
One of the best and cheapest places to eat in the city is in Little India, a row of a dozen Indian restaurants nearby on East Sixth Street at Second Ave. A table full of food with pan bread, mango chutney and even a bottle of wine will set you back less than $20 each. The Taj Mahal usually has musicians playing sitar and tambura.
But there’s no shortage of cheap food in the area. Both Second and Third avenues heading north are lined with cheap eats, ethnic restaurants, outdoor cafes, crazy shops and just the general teeming crowds of daily life in the city. This is “deep” New York and a fascinating walk.
Nearby Alphabet City is also great for a stroll. In the 60s, it was your life to walk on these three north-south avenues, A, B and C, between 2nd and 10th, but now the brownstones have been fixed up and mixed between them are wonderful little cafes and galleries. Check out Obscura Antiques & Oddities at 280 E. 10th, between 1st and Avenue A. It’s like walking into the Adam’s Family living room.
Pete’s Tavern, 129 E. 18th Ave., www.geocities.com/petestavern.geo/historyb
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. Gramercy Park is a couple blocks away. The park is locked and private, but surrounded by gorgeous flats, giving it the look and feel of London. Chelsea (due west on 23rd) makes a nice stroll. Swing by the Chelsea Hotel, 222 W. 23rd, www.hotelchelsea.com/history, where Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road in one marathon session, Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey, Bob Dylan composed songs and Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols may have stabbed his girlfriend to death. The art-filled lobby is as wild as you would expect.
Up for another pint?…or least ready for a restroom, the Half King http://www.thehalfking.com/ is down the block at 23rd and Tenth Ave. It’s a literary bar (Sebastian Junger, author of A Perfect Storm is one of the owners), filled with a maze of rooms lit by candles and known for book readings and signings. The Half King, by the way, was an Indian chief who guided George Washington in Western Pennsylvania. George no doubt drank with, but not in, the Half King.
Grand Central Terminal: The Oyster Bar www.oysterbarny.com and Campbell Apartment, www.hospitalityholdings.com
The restored Grand Central is New York’s masterpiece. Opened in 1913 at a cost of $80 million, the Beaux Arts building just had a $200 million restoration. Go during rush hour to see the madness as New York races across an acre of marble floors, topped by a nine-story atrium (the windows alone are seven-stories high) with a vaulted ceiling covered with 2,500 hand-painted stars pinpointing the major constellations. Outside, there are ten pillars and a gigantic statue of Mercury (the god of travel). The outdoor clock features the largest piece of Tiffany glass in the world.
But of course, for our interests, Grand Central also has some of New York’s finest historic bars. The Oyster Bar has been the city’s most famous seafood restaurant since it opened. Ian Fleming thought it the best restaurant in America, so he made it the favorite restaurant of James Bond, too. The crazy arched ceilings made of yellow Guastavino tiles were used as the inspiration for Lex Luthor’s hideaway in Superman. Sit at the counter, sip a Brooklyn “Local 1” Ale, and order some oysters (there are two dozen choices running about $2-$2.50 each) or some little neck clams for $1.35. An oyster poor boy is only $8.25.
Campbell Apartments is a bit more pricey, but there’s no more romantic spot for a cocktail. The 1920s room was once the office of mogul John W. Campbell, who turned the place into a replica of a Florentine palazzo with an inlaid ceiling, massive fireplace and leaded windows. It’s simply incredible – you expect to see Nick and Nora Charles sitting at one of end of the bar and Scott and Zelda at the other. Most of the cocktails are shaken and will set you back $12-15, but the experience is worth it.
And like a real speakeasy, it’s not easy to find. Going up the west ramp from the Oyster Bar, look for a freight elevator with a brass marker. That’s the only in-terminal entrance. The bar has a strict dress code with no t-shirts, shorts, athletic shoes, sweatshirts or torn jeans, thank you very much.
Walking Around Grand Central Station
No one needs a walking guide to mid-town Manhattan – it’s all good. But if you need another beer, or that all important easy public restroom, head to Bryant Park at Sixth Avenue and 42nd. Once the most dangerous spot in mid-town, Bryant Park has been transformed into a little slice of Paris. There are hundreds of French green folding chairs and tables to sit at – on gravel paths under the shade of rows of London Plane trees or beside a massive Italian fountain. The outdoor bar here is magnificent. I have seldom been in New York and missed an opportunity to have a beer at this lovely oasis. And although it’s just a block from Times Square, there’s a clean, safe, public restroom playing classical music. Only in New York.
In mid-town there are a hundred interesting bars, Irish pubs and the city’s only Scottish bar, St. Andrews at 140 W. 46, http://www.standrewsnyc.com/. With kilted bartenders and live music on the weekends, it’s a nice break from the 80 or so Irish pubs in the area. But if you’re so inclined, for a Murphy’s pub, try the brand new Legends at 6 W. 33rd which has great live music, http://www.legends33.com/, or for a Guinness and Irish music, head to the Galway Hooker, at 7 E. 36th, http://www.galwayhookernyc.com/. Practically next door is The Ginger Man, 11 E. 36, http://www.gingerman-ny.com/. With 70 beers on tap and 160 in bottles, it is, as beer guru Michael Jackson said, “one of the great beer bars of the world.”
But if you need one more historic bar, try the Algonquin Hotel, on 44th, between Fifth and Sixth, http://www.algonquinhotel.com/. Opened in 1902, the elegant hotel was home to the “Algonquin Round Table,” a bar where throughout the 1920s, 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 lines of Dorothy Parker 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.”
St Paddy’s Day Tips
The largest St. Patrick’s Day Parade in the world is literally “marching and drinking beer” down Fifth Avenue (though New York has zero tolerance for drinking in public and people are arrested. No worries, there’s a pub on every corner).
The parade starts at 44th Street and Fifth, and they’ll tell you on TV that with the crowds, it’s impossible to see anything of it south of 66th. Well, of course, they’re wrong. The parade starts forming on 44th, but doesn’t really get going until 47th. There are no crowds around the forming that takes place east and west of Fifth on 44th-47th; you can wander around these side streets, easily getting your fill of pipe bands, Irish wolfhounds, and the green-covered crazies, take some great photos, and be on your way.
Even at “ground zero” of the parade, passing St. Patrick’s Cathedral, I could easily see enough of the parade in 2009. In the end, how much of it do you really want to see, anyway? When you’re ready for a pub, pick up the free St. Patrick’s Day Irish Pub Guide, available in every pub with details on 80 Irish pubs, including who has music. Slainte!