The Old Soak: Drink Up History in Some of New York's Most Legendary Bars

New York is blessed with a rich bar history and a surprising number of well-preserved bars in which you can still soak up the atmosphere enjoyed by notables from bygone eras.

P.J. Clarke's

A lot of people will tell you that P.J. Clarke’s ain’t what it used to be. New ownership and a major restoration projected took a layer of, umm…authenticity off the walls and ceilings. It didn’t help that Bernie Madoff was one of the owners at the time. But he’s somewhere else now and it’s still a pretty great place to grab some oysters and a drink and think about the storied Hollywood folk that practically lived in the joint – Jackie Gleason, Elizabeth Taylor, and Frank Sinatra among many, many others. 

915 Third Avenue, 212-317-1616

Ear Inn

Did Abraham Lincoln really stop in at the Ear Inn, a place with roots that stretch back to 1817? “Who cares,” is probably as good an answer as any to that question, since this contender for New York’s oldest bar would be totally worthwhile even if it weren’t rich in history. It’s a hopping little joint with smaller-than-life features, excellent food, and, at times, live music.

326 Spring Street, 212-226-9060

King Cole Bar and Saloon

Ordering a Bloody Mary at the King Cole Bar and Saloon in the St. Regis Hotel is a really nice way to get a break from midtown chaos and sample a taste of history at the same time, since it’s said this is where the brunch tomato-vodka classic was first invented. The elegant bar that looks onto a stunning Max Parrish mural makes it worthwhile even without the rich history. 

2 East 55th Street, 212-339-6857

Old Town Bar

The Flatiron District’s Old Town Bar is an absolute must-see on any bar tour of New York. This timeless saloon manages to feel authentic, yet not dated, and is always jammed full of an eclectic cast of characters from all walks of life – in the best possible way. 

45 East 18th Street, 212-529-6732

Bemelmans Bar

The elegant black and gold Art Deco room at the splurge-worthy Bemelmans Bar in the Carlyle Hotel offers some of the city’s best jazz and is livened up with illustrations painted by its namesake, Ludwig Bemelman, author of the Madeline books. Notables who have played this room include Bobby Short and Woody Allen, whose fame is far-eclipsed by the most famous guests of the hotel, JFK and Marilyn. The Carlyle used to be known as “The New York White House.”

35 East 76th Street, 212-744-1600

McSorley’s Old Ale House

We’d be run out of town if we didn’t mention McSorley’s Old Ale House, since it’s a bona fide protected historical landmark that occupies a special place in the popular imagination. Unfortunately, it gets crowded with tourists and history buffs, so get to this East Village saloon early and cross it off your bar bucket list.

15 East 7th Street, 212-473-9148

Pete’s Tavern

Tucked away on a quiet street in Gramercy Park, Pete’s Tavern qualifies as a hidden gem and a genuine original. Said to have been frequented by politicians back in Tammany Hall days, this classic American bar is still one of the best.

128 East 18th Street, 212-473-7676

Fraunces Tavern

For the hard-core bar historian, the Fraunces Tavern in the financial district is an absolute must. Washington dined and slept at the original Fraunces (the existing building is a restoration), that played an important role in the Revolutionary War. The top two floors house a small museum and the main floor has a nice tap room for a refreshing little break.

54 Pearl Street, 212-968-1776

This article was originally published on February 10, 2015

Published Saturday, December 26th 2015

Header image credit: John Wallace



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