One of America’s Oldest Bars, McSorley’s Serves Up a Glass of History [Kicking Back with Jersey Joe]
“They were here before you were” is what the sign says on the front window. This iconic New York City bar has served up their homemade brew since the 19th century. While the world outside McSorley’s has dramatically changed, what’s inside has changed very little.
St. Patrick’s Day weekend is upon us and people will enjoy piling into a local pub for libations and to celebrate the Irish, regardless of their own heritage. You can bet McSorley’s will be packed several patrons deep.I first visited the place many years ago while some friends were visiting town. We had read about the history and knew that this pub was something special, but were unprepared for what we found.
It’s a time capsule back to the 1800’s. The antique bar, no stools, the old fashioned metal taps, no cash register, and sawdust floor. A working coal stove is centrally located and still keeps the place warm during the winter. It’s neat to see Houdini’s handcuffs clamped to the bar and wishbones, covered in decades of dust, hanging from the lamps. It is said these were left by World War I soldiers. When the soldier returned from battle, he would remove the wishbone he had left. The wishbones that remain are from the soldiers who never came home.
The exact opening date seems to be in dispute. McSorley’s claims they opened in 1854, but according to notes posted online, the lot was vacant until at least 1881. At this point, when the place is over a century and a half old, who is going to complain about a few decades? Besides, it is listed as New York City’s oldest continually operated bar.
The original owner, John McSorley, was born in Tyrone, Ireland in 1827. After a potato blight struck the country, he left for New York City, making his way to the Big Apple in 1851. According to the bar legend, he opened up in 1854 at the current location: 15 East 7th Street.
A decade later, the building in which the bar was located, added several floors of apartments and the family moved right upstairs. They would eventually buy the building decades later.
From the beginning, the bar had a strict men-only policy and only served their homemade ale, available in light (Pale Ale) or dark (Black Lager). They also have a small selection of home made sodas. The bar briefly experimented with selling hard liquor for one year in 1903, but it was decided to only sell their products.In 1910, John McSorley died just above the bar in his 2nd floor apartment. He was only 35 years old. When John’s sone took over, he ran the business as an homage to his father. When Prohibition hit in 1920, all forms of beer, wine, and alcohol were banned from sale. McSorley’s began serving up “Near Beer” while still quietly brewing their ales in the basement and serving them up in the now-open back room.
The bar would stay in the family’s hands until 1936, when it was sold to a New York City cop, who was a family friend and well known patron. McSorley’s would change hands a few more times, before being purchased by a once night-time manager, Matthew Mayer in 1977. Each time the bar was sold, it was feared that the new owner would make massive changes. Fortunately, that has not been the case and each successive owner has treated the establishment with respect, keeping to it’s traditions. It would make for a great marketing case study for big companies that keep changing their brands over and over, only to get lost and confused.
McSorley’s has been a popular stop for both New Yorkers and tourists since their earliest days. The bar has been immortalized in film, theatre, books, music, and magazines.
E.E. Cummings wrote the poem Sitting in McSorley’s in 1925. He described it as “the ale that never let’s you grow old.”
Joseph Mitchell a writer for the New Yorker magazine compiled several articles that are published in the book, McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon. Life magazine would also do a photo spread of the bar in 1943.
Legendary TV anchorman, Tom Snyder, shot an episode of his iconic Tomorrow Show for NBC inside in the late 1970’s. The bar was also in a scene from the 1984 film, Once Upon a Time in America.
When the New York Rangers won the Stanley Cup in 1994, they celebrated with it in the bar and accidentally dented the cup.
Women were finally allowed in after a big lawsuit in 1970. The National Organization for Women sued for discrimination and won in district court. The only way for the bar to remain open would be to become a private social club, or let the women in. They let the women in, but for 16 years, the antique men’s room had to be unisex, until the separate ladies room was built. The men’s room is an antique itself with several old oversize floor urinals and vintage fixtures that will probably outlast the Apocalypse.The other major change in the 1970’s was the addition of an adjacent kitchen. The bar serves light pub fare and is known for their cheese, cracker, and onion platter. Daily specials are posted on an antique chalk board and the food is a bargain, only costing a few bucks.
The beers are a good deal for Manhattan. You get 2 half pint sized mugs for $5 (and they only serve them two at a time). You will usually spot the bartenders carrying 10 in their hands at once. To me, the lighter beer had a thicker taste, while the darker beer had a lighter taste. Just get one of each and choose your own.
The crowd inside is a complete mix of everyone. You will find senior citizens standing next to frat boys that are downing the beers fully loaded. The clientele is a very laid back vibe. The bartenders will not put up with riff-raff and getting out of line will get you shown out the door, but that really doesn’t happen often.
There are two other licensed, themed locations. One in Hong Kong and one in Macau, run by Eclipse Management.
The bar has bottled and sold their ales all over the east coast since before World War II. It is still available for purchase in six packs and kegs (although it is no longer brewed in the basement), but the flavor is not as fresh as being in the real place and can be a bit pricey.
Everyone from celebrities to presidents has visited and the crowds continue to roll in. Yelp reviews (which are generally very negative) are actually quite positive, with glowing reviews for the cheap beer and good service. New York magazine gives McSorley’s a nod as “one of New York’s top five historic bars.”
What: McSorley’s Old Ale House
Location: 15 East 7th Street, New York City
Type: Historic dive bar serving their own low priced ales
JERSEY JOE RECOMMENDS:
An absolute can’t miss place in New York City. From the cheap ales to the history, places like this are becoming harder to find. While there, check out some of the kitsch that hangs on the walls: everything from a wanted poster for President Lincoln’s assassin to a gold record to J. Giles gold record for his album “Love Stinks.”
It’s hard for me to top the hundreds of reviews that have been posted about the place, so let me condense this into my every man approach… It’s hard to find a better bargain in New York, but they only serve are light and dark ales. If you’re not OK with that, then you’re out of luck. Don’t ask for another brand beer like I unknowingly did on my first visit there. Fortunately, the friendly bartender just served up one light and one dark mug and everything was just fine. So, sit back, relax, and strike up some good conversation and enjoy the trip back in time.
…And don’t try to watch the game – you won’t find a TV! They have a pay phone, which does ring from time to time, with out-of-townies calling to ask if the place is still open. To which my friend, who answered the pay phone for some unknown reason, simply replied “Hell, yeah!”