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A dive bar is probably not the first place one would look to find New York City’s rich history. The following places, however, are not your average bars. Most of them were around when the Brooklyn Bridge first opened in 1883. Their walls are covered in history, echoing the ghosts they have acquired over a century. They have been characters in a number of movies and books, and are in countless photographs. Their famed patrons range from George Washington to Bob Dylan, as varied as the neighborhoods where they are located, but its the neighborhood residents that have breathed life into these watering holes over the last 100+ years.

The Bridge Cafe

bridge cafe-oldest surviving bars-water district-nyc
Almost the entirety of this street is in the process of reconstruction after Hurricane Sandy.  

According to their website, Bridge Cafe is the oldest operating bar in New York City. The Landmarked wood frame building that houses the bar has existed since 1794, before the current bar was established in 1847 as a porter house. In a New York Times article, historian Richard McDermott attests to the building’s rich history, which includes two murders and a prosperous time throughout the Prohibition era. There’s even allegedly a ghost that haunts the bar. The cafe, which serves New American cuisine, is currently owned by Adam Weprin, whose father bought the cafe from the McCormack family in 1979.

The bar is almost directly under the Brooklyn Bridge in the South Street Seaport. One of the many restaurants and shops damaged by Hurricane Sandy, Bridge Cafe has been struggling with the process of reconstruction for the last year or so. Due to its status as a landmark, repairs must be made so that the structure remains exactly as it was, a costly endeavor. A re-opening is scheduled for December of this year.

Ear Inn

EarInn2-SpringStreet-NYC-Untapped-Cities-VivekShahTimber found in its attic sparked rumors that this bar was built using left over lumber from the great fire of 1776.

The Ear Inn has been housed by the ground level of a New York City landmark since the early 19th Century when it was a mere 5 feet from the Hudson River. The James Brown House, built in 1817 in what is now SoHo, was named after an aide to George Washington during the Revolutionary War who built the house after his success as a tobacco trader. It is constructed solely from wood post and Flemish brick. One of the cheaper bars on this list, the Ear Inn got its name after its 1977 re-opening prior to which it was known unofficially as “the Green Door.” Due to restrictions placed on changing the signs on a historical landmark, the owners had to paint over parts of the neon B in “BAR” in order to name it after The Ear (a music magazine that was published upstairs).

Click here for more on the Ear Inn’s history.

Fraunces Tavern

Fraunces Tavern

If you are looking for George Washington’s tooth, Fraunces Tavern is the place to be. The building on the corner of Pearl Street and Broad Street was constructed in 1719 in the Georgian style, as a home for the Delancey family. Samuel Fraunces, a revolutionary whose race remains a mystery, turned the yellow brick structure into a tavern called the Queen’s Head. It was a meeting spot for the Sons of Liberty and George Washington gave his farewell speech here on December 4, 1783.

Since 1904 the tavern has been under the ownership of the Sons of the Revolution in the State of New York. Though the many reconstructions it has undergone have attempted to restore the original edifice, several fires in the 19th century made it impossible to know the original building plan. Nowadays Fraunces Tavern multitasks as a museum as well as a functioning restaurant and bar.  It holds a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.

McSorley’s Old Ale House

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Just a heads up, beers here are served in orders of two.

Standing inconspicuously at 15 E. 7th Street, McSorley’s Old Ale House offers two drinks: McSorley’s Dark Ale and McSorley’s Light Ale. Despite their lack of variety, or perhaps because of it, the bar has thrived throughout the years, managing to keep fairly low prices. Collectibles line the walls, some of them there since 1910. Wishbones hang from above placed there by neighborhood boys who went to war and did not make it back.

Though the ale house is declared to go back to the year 1854, records deem it impossible. Whatever the year the establishment came to be, they have some of the oldest urinals, dating back to 1911. Famous patrons have included Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and e.e. cummings, who referred to McSorley’s as “snug and evil” in a 1923 poem. Until 1970 women were not allowed in the bar, an attitude reflected by their former motto “Good Ale, Raw Onions and No Ladies.”

Mulberry Street Bar

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This Little Italy haunt was established over a hundred years ago, as a small bar called Mare Chiaro. Its rich history remains in its original subway tile floor, wooden bar, and pressed-tin ceiling. The bar stayed in the same family for a couple of generations, before being purchased in 2003 by current owner Ed Welsh. His updates have made the bar good for sports fans and karaoke lovers alike, but nothing beats the juke box stocked with Connie Francis, Frank Sinatra, and Four Tops. It has been the site of many films, including: Donnie Brasco, Men of Honor, and The Godfather Part III.

Trying to pay with a credit card ? Fuhgeddaboudit‎. They only take cash.

Old Town Bar

old town bar-oldest surviving bars-union square-nyc

According to an article on Esquire, the scotch highball is the way to go.

Old Town Bar joined the Union Square neighborhood in 1882 as Viemeister’s. Like many of the other bars on this list, it survived Prohibition by becoming a speakeasy under the name Craig’s Restaurant. During this stage in the bar’s history, patrons could hide their alcohol in a compartment underneath their seats. Old Town opened as a German-style saloon that served only men at the bar, with an upper dining room where whole families could gather. It retains some of its decor from the 1930s as well as a pair of functioning 19th century Hinsdale urinals (which celebrated their 100-year anniversary a few years ago). Though it has been popular in film, Old Town is also known as a literary bar–Frank McCourt, Billy Collins, and Nick Hornby are among the writers who frequented the high-ceilinged establishment.

P.J. Clarke’s

New York City, 1 Aug 08Image source: Wikimedia Commons by Jazz Guy

Dating back to 1884, P. J. Clarke’s has been a staple of the East side for almost a century, and its history has been recounted to almost mythic proportions. In the 1940s Johnny Mercer wrote his song One For My Baby on a napkin at P.J. Clarke’s, and a young Sinatra regularly ended nights here. Buddy Holly proposed to his wife here. Keith Richards gave an unplanned performance of Brown Sugar at the bar. It is has also served as the location for numerous films, including The Lost Weekend and Annie Hall, and the television series Mad Men.

The bar is named after its second owner, Irish immigrant Patrick J. Clarke, who bought it in 1912. As a holdout, the two story establishment stands in particular contrast to the skyscrapers that surround it. The upper floor houses Sidecar, a restaurant that provides a more refined dining experience.

For more on P.J. Clarke’s, read this Untapped Cities post on vintage bars, or visit their website.

Pete’s Tavern

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According to the tavern’s owners O. Henry wrote The Gift of the Magi here.

Pete’s, also known as “the tavern that O. Henry made famous”, is a vestige of the Civil-War era. The building itself dates back to 1829, though it was not operated as a bar until 1864. Its large signs claiming to be the oldest bar in the city have been greatly disputed by McSorley’s. As was the case for most of the previous pubs, Prohibition meant business as usual, though its brief status as a flower shop was one of the more creative covers. It lies in the Gramercy Park Historical District, though it has not been specifically designated as a New York City landmark.

The Whitehorse Tavern

white horse tavern-oldest surviving bars-west village-nycFamous patrons of this West Village tavern include: Jim Morrison, Hunter S. Thompson, and John Ashbery.

The “Kerouac, go home!” that once decorated this tavern’s bathroom walls was a testament to how much the Desolation Angels author frequented the place. What began as a watering hole for longshoremen became a literary hangout in the 1950’s. Among its many acclaimed patrons, Dylan Thomas was one of the most frequent. It is said that his ghost haunts his favorite table in the center of the room, where he took his final drink and his picture now hangs. The Whitehourse Tavern was also a favorite of Michael Harrington (whose book helped inspire the ‘War on Poverty’) and author/political organizer Dan Wakefield. For a time it was a gathering place for writers of the Village Voice, whose original offices were a few blocks from the tavern.

Chumley’s

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In 1960, a writer was killed here in a fight over a chess game.

Erroniously referred to by Simone de Beauvoir as Chumby’s, Chumley’s, has been around since 1922. A chimney in the building collapsed in 2007, leading many to fear the end of the bar and restaurant. It was not the end but, unfortunately, reconstructing the facade took about five years and the famed bar has yet to re-open.

It is a bit difficult to find given that it has no sign, a remnant of its beginning as a speakeasy during Prohibition. A host of illustrious patrons have graced the tables at Chumley’s including: F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, E.E. Cummings, and Willa Cather. The ghost of Henrietta Chumley, the proprietress who died at her favorite table, is rumored to haunt the bar. Her husband, Lee Chumley also died on the property. He was a radical according to the New York Times, who operated his bar as a front for the Industrial Workers of the World.

Read on for more haunted spots in NYC.

4 Comments

  1. Thys Roes says:

    Fun fact: The actual oldest bar in New York used to be on the corner of Counties Slip and Pearl Street, in what was then New Amsterdam. Since this tavern was the main social gathering spot, it would quickly become the unofficial city hall of New Amsterdam and later of New York. Both the imprints of the early Dutch tavern as well as some archeological remains of the later English tavern (after the English take over of New Amsterdam) are still there: http://goo.gl/maps/LdKII

    • michelle young says:

      Hi Josh, the article addresses the delayed reopening of Chumleys, as we were longtime patrons of the spot. we have our fingers crossed! Thanks for the link.

  2. James Taylor says:

    With reference to P.J. Clarke’s being used as a location in Annie Hall:

    Which scene is that? The part where Annie sings in the club? Because I’ve seen suggestions that it was downtown: http://www.scoutingny.com/?p=5733

    Incidentally, the final moments of that movie (where Woody and Diane part) take place in and outside what is now P.J. Clarke’s on the corner of 63rd and Amsterdam.

    Speaking of great New York movies, one place this article does not mention is the Emerald Pub in western SoHo, as featured in the brilliant Scorsese comedy, After Hours. Interestingly, in the movie the bar was renamed Terminal Bar, which was a real existing bar (on Eighth Avenue I think) glimpsed in an earlier Scorsese film, Taxi Driver.

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