A Tavern Behind the Times

The magazine I used to write for, All About Beer, officially died when owner Christopher Rice recently filed for bankruptcy. To preserve some of the content I've contributed over the years, I'm reposting some of my favorite pieces here. This article was published on the website on October 8, 2015, the last time I was in New York.

A year ago, I posted some excerpts from an article in The New Yorker dating back to 1940 about McSorley’s Old Ale House, a tavern in Manhattan’s East Village. That article discussed how aggressively behind the times the old tavern was … and it’s now 75 years later. In the 161 years of its life [165 in 2019], a lot of people have visited and commented on it, obviating the need for one more report. Well, this is a blog, so you’re getting it, anyway. My guide was All About Beer Magazine editor (and friend) John Holl, who recently took me over for a beer. These are my findings.

A few things have changed, but McSorley’s claim to fame is its continued aggressive antiquity. Three or four people mentioned that not too long ago, somebody in an official capacity wandered through and was horrified by the hairy accumulations of dust on the old wishbones hanging over the bar and demanded a full cleaning. The wishbones were placed by soldiers going off to war, to be reclaimed if they made it back safely. It seems like he hasn’t been back: the dust is piled back up to at least an eighth of an inch, so. The whole bar is clad in shades of gray, partly because of the undisturbed dust, partly because none of the pictures that cover every inch of the walls were taken after the introduction of color photography. The windows are dusty and the light bulbs weak; and the front of the bar, where the sun did manage to penetrate, was the one place patrons avoided.

As unchanged as the bar is, it must contend with visitors, and they arrive from 2015. Women are nominally allowed now (a court ruling in 1970 mandated it), but the place is so grimy that only one of the 20-odd patrons I saw was female. But people were wearing T-shirts and jeans, carrying backpacks, and of course, clicking photos on cell phones. McSorley’s has become such an institution that floods of tourists (like me) wash away some of the authenticity. What can you do? (Try to crop them out of the pictures.)

One of the most interesting things about the place is the beer. According to that Mitchell piece in The New Yorker, “McSorley’s always has come from the Fidelio Brewery on First Avenue; the brewery was founded two years before the saloon.” Well, now the right to brew it is owned by Pabst, and they make two beers, a light and a dark. When you order, you get two mugs at a minimum. “A beer” means two beers. They come with half head and half beer and settle into about a two-thirds pour. Ordering “two pales” will thus get you four half-filled mugs of pale. John ordered one and one to start so I could try both. The pale is toasty and warm but clean and lager-like. It’s American in that halfway sense that beers were once neither fully lager nor ale. The dark is much more lager-like—a schwarzbier, it tasted to me. I liked them both quite a lot, but when we had a second round, I ordered the dark.

Some institutions—particularly drinking establishments that cater mainly to tourists—become kitsch, self-parodies. I couldn’t decide if McSorley’s had crossed that line or not. Surely a truly living place would have abandoned the sawdust floor? Would have changed out a few of the old pictures with new-old pictures of the more recent long-ago history? But arguing against this point is the way the Irish bartender handled the empty glasses. Since people are drinking them by twos, and since they’re smallish and not filled full, there’s quite a volume. The bartender cleans them by taking two fanned fistfuls and plunging them in water a few times. Up on the drainboard they go, ready for another filling. That doesn’t seem like kitsch.

And it’s not something of which that state health official would approve, probably. But somehow, it doesn’t seem like the city is any more insistent about changes at McSorley’s than McSorley’s is. Manhattan is a strange place, in that it is absolutely remorseless about plowing the old under to make way for the new while at the same time cherishing the old places that somehow dodge the wrecking ball. (Across the street from McSorley’s is some new Gehry-inflected building.) If for no other reason than it has managed to survive, it’s something more than kitsch. Or perhaps one could say that even kitsch, properly aged, becomes authentic.

Anyway, if you want to visit, I’d select a sleepy early afternoon sometime in the middle of the week. There are fewer patrons then, and fewer tourists, and you can cock your head just enough to see back through the decades as you try to find enough light to snap that cell phone pic.

Update, May 7, 2019
I arrived in town yesterday at around noon and before one was sitting at the Swift Hibernian Lounge, which is just three blocks from McSorley’s. This recommendation came from Jon Urch, who called it one of his favorite bars in the world—which was good enough for me to make it a first stop. Like McSorley’s, it has the feel of an institution (but it’s only 24 years old, young for this city). Also like McSorley’s, an Irish bartender was pulling pints. Unlike McSorley’s, the range of beers is broad and includes selections like Grimm’s Spooky Action, a red/brown Flanders I had with my shepherd’s pie. But then every bar must have its own personality.

As I got to know Carl a bit, I told him to look me up if he found himself in Portland, and gave him this web address. He immediately pulled it up on his phone and saw yesterday’s post, which had a photo I took that time I visited McSorley’s. He said, “Oh, that’s Shane.” Of course they knew each other. Is he still there, I wondered. “Ah yeah, people never leave,” he replied. In fact, there’s a group of young Irish expats who come to New York for fun and adventure, and they populate the city’s saloons like these two. I don’t know that I’ll make it back anytime soon, but there’s a story for an enterprising writer. There’s something so quintessentially New York about that story—a group of immigrants leaving their home country to move to the lights and excitement of the big city, and finding each other there. It has been happening like that for hundreds of years. New York keeps changing, but it also keeps staying the same. I so love that about this city.

Here’s Swift’s. Now off to more adventures.