The other night, Kater and I found ourselves in the East Village and decided to end our evening at McSorley’s Old Ale House. McSorley’s claims to have opened in 1854 – there are some disputes on the actual opening based on records of the building / census reports – but it *is* widely recognized as the oldest Irish Tavern in NYC. The bar had been on both of our to-do lists for ages and we were both surprised to find out that the other had not been yet either.
This is not the place to go and order shots, margaritas, or appletinis – if anyone actually drinks these. We had each done our research over the years so we ordered correctly and didn’t look like fools. There are only two beverage orders at this joint – light or dark ale, which are made these days in Utica although at some point they were brewed at the bar. You get two smallish plastic pint glasses per beer. It’s only $5.50 for the two and it’s delicious, either way you swing.
After getting our drinks, we took in the bar and did a little more research on our phones. There is sawdust all over the floor to absorb spills and potentially to make you feel like you’re really in the old days. The walls are covered in paintings, photos, newspapers (including the cover of the NY Times with the sinking of the Titanic), and more. Nothing has been removed from the walls since 1910 although much has been added over the years.
There are three things that you should make sure to seek out when you are there if you’re into history – if you believe these tales of course.
- A row of incredibly dusty wishbones hanging over the bar. The story is that before going off to World War I, soldiers hung them and removed them when they returned. Presumably, the wishbones that remain represent those who were killed while at war.
- A chair behind the bar which claims to have been Abe Lincoln’s seat when he came to the bar after his famous Cooper Union speech around the corner. Skeptics of course will ask how the bar owners knew that he would become famous and would recall which chair he sat in. One of the bartenders, Mike, told us that it happened to have also been Peter Cooper’s chair, so it was easy to remember that Lincoln had sat there as well. Some historic records show that the bar did not open until 1862, which negates this entire story.
- Two pairs of handcuffs – one which most people think are those of Harry Houdini on the bottom rail of the bar. Mike told us that those were actually put there by a police officer and Houdini’s cuffs were moved up toward Abe’s chair at some point and are much older, rustier, and dirtier.
Another fun thing about this place is that it was one of the last bars in Manhattan to not allow women, even while it had a female owner. It only started letting ladies in the doors in 1970. Why would anyone want to go to a bar without ladies?!
Of course we felt empowered since we are ladies, locals, and Irish lasses so we ended up staying for more than just the “one more drink” we had promised ourselves when walking in. The communal tables are good if you like to chat with strangers, play games with them, and accuse them of never having seen the ocean. Irish Americans love little more than talking to actual Irish Irish people, so of course, per usual, I asked the staff if they know the tiny village in Ireland where only my family has ever lived. Even though I yelled the wrong Irish name (Brendan vs. Shane) at one of the waiters to try to get his attention, the staff was happy to chat, at least they are if you’re wearing a dress.
Our plan is to become regulars here so please let us know if you want in. We were told the true regulars camp out during the day with some mugs, a sleeve of Ritz crackers, some raw onions, and some mustard. Sounds almost as appetizing as a Cronut, right?
* Read e.e. cummings’ poem about McSorley’s
* Listen to The Bowery Boys podcast about McSorley’s