Nine Historic NYC Bars

Kathleen Squires

The world has its share of booze museums, from the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin to the Japan Sake Center in Tokyo—but nothing oozes the history of spirits like the bars of New York City. The ghosts of drinking past come to life in legendary dives, saloons, speakeasies and lounges, where notable names from all walks of life added to the annals of the City's taverns—from George Washington toasting his troops at the Fraunces to Mae West vamping it up at the Union Course in Queens. And what would this city be without the clandestine antics of the society crowd at '21' Club, the jazz legends born at Lenox Lounge and the enchanting murals at Bemelmans Bar? If the walls of NYC's watering holes could talk, here's what they might say.

McSorley's Old Ale House
The bar dates its opening as 1854, claiming it as the City's oldest continuously operating saloon. Some historians, however, pin its debut to 1862. No matter what its date of origin, the potbellied stove, gas lamps, carved mahogany bar and framed antique newspaper clippings prove McSorley's goes waaay back. Ancient memorabilia include an original reward poster for the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln (who visited after his Cooper Union speech) and Harry Houdini's handcuffs, clipped to the bar. Famous patrons like e. e. cummings, John Lennon and Theodore Roosevelt stood on its sawdust-covered floor; the New York Rangers sipped from the Stanley Cup here; and attorneys Faith Seidenberg and Karen DeCrow were the first females to cross the threshold after suing and winning access for women in 1970. Hard-liquor lovers need not enter—only mugs of light or dark house brew are served.

Bemelmans Bar
The Carlyle Hotel's classy cocktail lounge bears the name of artist Ludwig Bemelmans, whose whimsical 1947 murals adorn the walls, ceiling and lamp shades throughout. Patrons can admire the Central Park scenes while relaxing in leather banquettes, listening to a pianist channel Cole Porter, and sipping throwback drinks like a Gin-Gin Mule (gin, ginger beer, mint and lime) or a Valencia (sherry, orange oil and gin, garnished with flaming orange peel). Cocktail culture never went out of style here; as a result, Bemelmans has produced world-renowned mixologist Audrey Saunders. Cheese gourgères (mini cheese puffs) made in the shape of Bemelmans' most famous creation, the children's book heroine Madeline, are an especially clever nod to the bar's namesake.

'21' Club
New Yorkers can thank Prohibition for the birth of this chestnut. Opened on New Year's Eve, 1929, as a speakeasy, this is where café society broke the law in style. The two places to tipple are the classic bar room—it's decked out in red-and-white tablecloths and has a ceiling adorned with antique toys—and the swankier lounge, the perfect setting to sip a fireside cognac in a red leather chair. Notables like Ernest Hemingway, Frank Sinatra and a dozen presidents tossed a few back here, and the interior exudes so much atmosphere that it has appeared in more NYC movies (from All About Eve to Wall Street) than any other restaurant. Oenophiles throughout the ages have adored the award-winning wine list; its cellar has kept the private collections of the likes of John F. Kennedy and Aristotle Onassis.

Lenox Lounge. Photo: Dana Perrotti

Lenox Lounge
This art-deco hub of the Harlem Renaissance is where Malcolm X worked the bar, Billie Holiday sang the blues, James Baldwin pondered poems and John Coltrane's sax wailed alongside Miles Davis' trumpet. While today's crowd of students, locals, music enthusiasts and tourists may not be as luminous, the jazz acts still wow in the zebra-striped back room. In the more casual, mirrored front room, happy hour means margaritas, daiquiris or specialties like the Harlem Nights, a coconut rum–and-tequila concoction. Even a recent renovation hasn't taken the sheen off this spot's authenticity. Since 1939, its iconic sign has been a neighborhood beacon.

Photo: Malcolm Brown

Union Course Tavern
In the early 20th century, this is one place where you could "come up and see" Mae West, who performed here when she was a neighborhood girl in Woodhaven. Besides a painting of her and a pool table, though, there's not much more to Queens' oldest bar. (And if the inscription of 1853 above the bar is accurate, it may well be the oldest in the City.) Another notable Hollywood fan, Martin Scorcese, included Union's back room in Goodfellas. Also known as Neir's—for the family that once owned it—and now named for the racetrack that once stood across the street, this two-story town house sports no sign and has no buzz. It's a classic old man's bar, a comfortingly frat boy–free zone. If you don't drink shots of Wild Turkey or Bud on tap, you'll feel out of place.

Pete's Tavern
Back in the day, circa its opening in 1864, Pete's was the place for Tammany Hall politicians. Nowadays, the crowd gets more excited about Yankees games than local elections, as they cheer on the home teams at the carved rosewood bar while sipping the house brew, 1864 Original House Ale. Pete's bragging rights include its claim that O. Henry, a regular, wrote “The Gift of the Magi” within its walls, and that it skirted the law by building a false flower shop as a front during Prohibition (patrons entered through a faux fridge). These days, the clientele sits at alfresco tables, grateful that the tavern can now serve out in the open.

Fraunces Tavern
George Washington slept here. He also drank here. In 1783, this inn/tavern was where the US general bade farewell to his troops after their long fight for American independence. The building—which barely survived several fires—suffered another setback in 1975, when FALN terrorists bombed it, killing four. Now, Fraunces is one of the best spots to drink in American history along with your cocktail. The attached museum holds a collection of colonial-era relics, from a portrait gallery of our first president to one of his false teeth. Original American flags, muskets and a mural of the Battle of Brooklyn decorate the tavern room itself.

Photo: Malcolm Brown

Bridge Café
Sitting in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, this quaint spot professes to be haunted by the ghosts of its past. And what an interesting lot these spirits must be, as the building, dating back to 1794, was once a brothel, a speakeasy and a pit stop for pirates. One famous Bridge Café legend pertains to female bouncer Gallus Mag, a 6-foot-tall Englishwoman who would drag out drunks by the ear—with her sharpened teeth! Lore has it that she even bit off a few, stashing them in jars behind the oak bar. Today, the likeliest NYC ghost of Bridge's past is regular Ed Koch, who is said to have eaten there twice a week when he was mayor.

Photo: Malcolm Brown

Landmark Tavern
A classic Irish pub dating to 1868, this spot once stood on the shores of the Hudson River, before landfill created 12th Avenue and the West Side Highway. Times may have changed, but the neighborhood still embraces it. The rough-and-tumble dockworker crowd doesn't come around anymore, and a loving 2005 restoration has added some spit and polish to charming original details—like the mahogany paneling, tiled floor, tin ceiling and bar (carved from a single tree). A list of nearly 20 fine single-malt scotches and a menu from a pedigreed Australian chef are classy touches to the comfortable space.