This is not a guide for Sex and the City fans. Cocktails and glam clubs are still big in Manhattan, but good old-fashioned pubs, aided by the US craft beer revolution, are back in vogue. This tour takes you to the oldest, most venerable Manhattan alehouses.
Technically the oldest tavern in the city, Bridge Café at 279 Water St, is housed in building dating back to 1794 but it's not included here because it’s more a restaurant than a place to drink (and it’s currently closed in the wake of Hurricane Sandy).
58 Pearl St, between Broad and Water sts, www.frauncestavern.com
George Washington quaffed several pints here in 1783 (he’d just won independence from Britain), and it’s fitting to begin your tour where New York itself was born, on the skyscraper-smothered southern tip of Manhattan. Purists may consider this a controversial choice – the bar is relatively new, an outpost of Dublin’s Porterhouse Brewing Company – but the premises dates back to 1719. The restaurant (turn right at the main entrance) is the oldest section, but the Dingle Whiskey Bar and the main bar beyond (to the left) have been tastefully decked out in wood fittings and bottle-filled glass cabinets. Check out the museum upstairs before you start.
Happy Hour: Mon–Fri 4–7pm (US$1 off seasonal draughts; US$5 well drinks)
Drink this: Oyster Stout, or An Brain Blásta, a sweet, strong IPA (both US$8).
Next move: Walk to Whitehall subway station (5min); catch the uptown R train to Canal St (10min), then walk north up Broadway, turning right on Grand St then left on Mulberry (7–8min).
176-1/2 Mulberry St, between Broome and Grand sts, 212 226 9345.
Welcome to Little Italy – this 1908 classic, one-room bar-come-restaurant is the real deal. Hollywood producers love this place: the ornate wooden back bar with inset mirrors, tiled ‘subway’ floor and pressed tin roof have barely changed since it opened, and Donny Brasco, The Godfather Part III, The Sopranos and Law & Order were all filmed here.
Happy hour: Daily 3–7pm. Bud US$4, well drinks US$4.
Drink this: Brooklyn Lager, Harpoon IPA, or if you are really inspired, Moretti (US$6).
Next move: Walk up to Mulberry Street and turn left when you hit Prince St (8min).
94 Prince St, at Mercer St, 212 226 9412
Established in 1922 (the building dates from 1853), Fanelli is one of the city’s most gorgeous old-school bars – much of the floor area is given over to diners, but sit at the bar if you just want to drink. A good place to load up on some carbs and calories (the bison burger is excellent; US$9.95).
Happy Hour: None (bar staff: “every hour is happy hour”).
Drink this: Dog Fish Head IPA (US$6).
Next move: It’s time to stretch the legs. Walk south along Mercer Street; turn right at Spring St (10–15min).
326 Spring St, between Washington and Greenwich sts, www.earinn.com
As cosy as a Cornish Inn. Entering the Ear is a bit like coming aboard an old frigate, with wood ceilings, wood floors and the walls smothered in old pics, including a campaign poster for Wendell Willkie, who ran for president against FDR in 1940 (in the back room).
The bar opened in 1890 (the building dates from 1817, built for African-American James Brown, an aide to George Washington). An Irishman named Tom Cloke turned the place into a rough boozer for New York dockers – some claim it’s haunted by “Mickey”, the ghost of a sailor. The name “EAR” was informally given to the bar as a reference to the monthly musical Ear Magazine that was published upstairs in the 1970s and 1980s. Part of the neon “BAR” sign was strategically blacked out in the 1970s to avoid the hassle of seeking city approval for new signage – these days half the neon seems to be out (“EA” at last view). No cell phones allowed, seriously.
Happy Hour: Mon–Fri 4–7pm, US$1 off all drinks.
Drink this: Ear Inn Ale, by Brooklyn Brewery (US$6)
Next move: Take a short taxi ride up Greenwich (Hudson Street may be easier) to the White Horse (at 11th St). US$5.50; under 5min.
567 Hudson St, at W 11th St 212 243 9260
A Greenwich Village institution, opening way back in 1880: Dylan Thomas supped his last here in 1953 before being carted off to the hospital with alcohol poisoning (the middle ‘Dylan Thomas Room’ contains his portrait and a plaque honouring the poet), while Norman Mailer, Bob Dylan and Hunter S. Thompson were also regulars.
And, yes, students really do come here to drink 18 whiskeys (the ‘Dylan Thomas challenge’). No wonder the staff can be a bit grouchy.
Happy Hour: None.
Drink this: Sam Adams or Guinness (US$6).
Next move: Take a taxi for the next jump across to East 7th St and Third Ave (US$8.50; 10–15min).
15 E 7th St, between Second and Third aves, 212-473-9148
This place actually looks like New York’s oldest pub. Opened by Irish immigrant John McSorley in 1854 (or 1862, depending on who you believe), none of the memorabilia on the walls has been removed since 1910 (or cleaned, by the looks of it) – check out the blackened wishbones on the light fitting over the bar, left by soldiers who went off to fight in the First World War (and who never came back). Lincoln had a pint here in 1860, and a chair where he supposedly sat is kept behind the bar. More infamously, McSorley’s was closed to women until 1970 (a ladies room was finally installed in 1986).
Today the floors are still strewn with sawdust, there’s a huge cast-iron furnace behind the bar and a motley bunch of tourists, NYU students and old regulars supping the house beer inside. McSorley’s only pours its own ale – light or dark, which famously come in pairs (order one, you get two), served in small, foamy mugs.
Happy Hour: You must be joking.
Drink this: Dark or Light Ale – that’s your only choice: US$5
Next move: Walk to Astor Square (3min), and take the 6 train one-stop to 14th-St Union Sq (2min), then walk up to 18th Street (7–10min). A taxi will be cheaper if there are three or more in your group.
45 E 18th St, between Broadway and Park Ave, www.oldtownbar.com
Take a trip back to the Victorian era at this atmospheric bar popular with publishing types and photographers (the Tumblr offices are nearby). Though it opened in 1892, much of the creaking interior is original, including the rickety dumbwaiter, the handsome 55-foot (16.7m) mahogany and marble bar and the monstrously large urinals in the mens' bathroom, fitted in 1910.
Happy Hour: None
Drink this: Blue Point Toasted Lager (US$7)
Next move: Not far this time. Walk a block and half east along 18th Street (3min).
129 E 18th St, www.petestavern.com
Who exactly was O. Henry? Open since 1864, this former speakeasy now trades unashamedly on its history, which has included such illustrious patrons as O. Henry – it’s just a shame that no one other than NYC lit majors really knows who O. Henry was (the poet wrote “The Gift of the Magi” here in 1904, allegedly – pretend you’ve read it). This is also another place that has a focus on food, but the old bar, with 16 beers on tap, drips with nineteenth-century atmosphere.
Happy Hour: None
Drink this: 1864 House Ale, or Pabst (seriously, on draft!); US$7
Next move: Walk back to Union Square (5min) and take the 4 or 5 express to 59th Street (6min); then walk 4 blocks south (5–10min).
915 Third Ave, at E 55th, www.pjclarkes.com
Finally, here’s one Midtown pub within stumbling distance of your Times Square lodgings that has some historic pedigree. Built in 1868 (though the exact date is still disputed), the bar opened around 1884. Mr. Patrick Joseph “Paddy” Clarke purchased it in 1912, and it’s been a regular for a bevy of stars ever since, from Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Harris to Jackie Kennedy and Nat King Cole.
These days its wine selection is better than the beers, though the infamous burger, served with a pickle and a slice of raw onion, is still one of the best in town.
Happy Hour: None
Drink this: Brooklyn Lager or Goose Island (US$6)
Next move: Grab a taxi for the final switch across to the west side (11th Ave at 46th St); US$6.50; 5–10min.
626 Eleventh Ave, at W 46th St, www.thelandmarktavern.org
Off the beaten path in Midtown’s western industrial wasteland, this long-established Irish tavern (opened in 1868) offers decent Guinness, shepherd’s pie and Irish soda bread baked fresh every day. Note the sturdy bar, built from a single mahogany tree, and the original speakeasy front door. By this stage of the tour you may well start seeing one of two ghosts said to haunt the pub: a young Irish girl who died on the third floor, and a Confederate soldier who was mortally wounded in a drunken brawl and also passed away upstairs.
Happy Hour: None.
Drink this: Smithwick’s (US$6).
Next move: Landmark is four (but long), stumbling, blocks west of Times Square, where the Disney Store is open till 1am – I’m just saying.
NB: Since the time of writing, the more pub-like Paris Café (1873), another one of the oldest watering holes, has recently been renovated and reopened in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
Stephen Keeling is the co-author of the Rough Guide to New York.