Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Backdoor Guide

Several years ago, I pitched to publishers a book idea called The Backdoor Guide to New York City. Subtitled "Offbeat, Overlooked, Historical, and Just Plain Interesting Places to Visit and Things to Do While in the Big Apple," the concept, alas, didn't find a taker. In my humble opinion, the sample material included in the book proposal was nonetheless quite interesting, including a chapter called "Raising the Bar." Some of the contact information and current references are already dated, but the history and lore surrounding these establishments remains as timeless as ever. (In fact, since Chumley's dining room chimney collapsed in 2007, the place has been closed and undergoing renovations.)

Raising the Bar
New York City has been appropriately dubbed the City That Never Sleeps. In the Big Apple, there are things to do and places to go from dawn to dusk and from dusk to dawn, too. There are more taverns, saloons, watering holes, clubs, and lounges—call them what you wish—than census takers can ever tally up. Some of these bar businesses are historic; a handful are truly legendary; and many are just plain unique, even a bit bizarre by the rest of the world’s standards.

White Horse Tavern
567 Hudson Street
(between West 11th Street and Perry Street)
West Village
Subway: 1 to Christopher Street; A, C, E, L to 14th Street/Eighth Avenue

The White Horse Tavern in the West Village counts itself among the most longstanding saloons in the borough of Manhattan. Established in 1880, this venerable bar is chock full of both brain-tingling spirits and intriguing history. It is, perhaps, best known as the place where poet Dylan Thomas purportedly drank himself to death in 1953. Legend has it that Thomas’s last words were: “I’ve had eighteen straight shots of whiskey. I think that’s the record.” In the esteemed bard’s memory, an entire dining room is named for him.

For more than half a century, the White Horse Tavern has been a favorite stopover for a diverse band of celebrities from Jack Kerouac to Andy Warhol; Bob Dylan to John Belushi; Norman Mailer to Peter, Paul, and Mary; the Clancy Brothers to James Baldwin. More recently, best-selling author of Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt, has been spotted enjoying the White Horse Tavern’s unpretentious and relaxed bar scene—by New York City standards, anyway.

While consuming the pub’s famous bloody bar burgers and sitting at its original bar carved out of a single piece of seamless mahogany, clientele at the White Horse Tavern are in a veritable time warp. Patrons who look to the heavens chance upon a meticulously hand-engraved ceiling and the painted over blemishes of long removed and replaced gas lighting. There are also a stable of white horses staring back at one and all from a variety of locations and in a variety of forms. Originally, these legions of white horses functioned as advertisements for the house whiskey: White Horse, which, by the way, the pub still serves. The tavern building is also one of just a handful of wood-framed structures still standing in Manhattan.

Andrew Yamato in a New York magazine online review humorously wrote of the White Horse Tavern, “Whether or not you have the Great American Novel in your head, you can still get blasted at the nostalgic high temple of the Alcoholic Artist.”

McSorley’s Old Ale House
15 East 7th Street
(between Second and Third Avenues)
East Village
Subway: 6 to Astor Place; R, W to 8th Street
In the early twentieth century, business at McSorley’s Old Ale House boomed when artist John Sloan, of the so-called “Ashcan School,” exhibited a series of paintings depicting the working tavern in gritty detail. In the midst of World War II, Life magazine ran a feature story with the heading: A Day in the Life of an Alehouse. The alehouse was none other than McSorley’s in Manhattan’s East Village. From that moment forward, this old-fashioned drinking hole was renowned well beyond the borders of its urban address. And, further adding to the pub’s reputation, writer Joseph Mitchell published a compilation of his New Yorker magazine essays in a book entitled McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon.

According to its founder, John McSorley, McSorley’s Old Ale House opened for business in 1854. Citing documentary evidence, New York City historian Richard McDermott says the year 1862 is more likely. But whether or not McSorley’s sold its original mug of ale before, or after, the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter, it is still one of the oldest bar businesses in town. Even National Prohibition couldn’t derail the pub’s growing popularity.

McSorley’s Old Ale House also has the distinction of barring women from its premises into the 1970s, when that kind of thing was no longer kosher. Feminist attorney Faith Seidenberg successfully filed a lawsuit to end the bar’s longstanding refusal to serve the fairer sex. Today, all who come to McSorley’s door are welcome to sample the house brew—light and dark ale served simultaneously in two small mugs. Never order a Bud—or any other beer for that matter—because you won’t get one at this august tavern. It’s McSorley’s own ale or sayonara. The interior of McSorley’s Old Ale House is awash in all kinds of fascinating memorabilia from days gone by. The place has sawdust on its floors, a functioning coal-burning stove, and swing-doors—just like in the Old West and in Old New York, too.

Pete’s Tavern
129 E. 18th Street
(at Irving Plaza)
Flatiron/Gramercy/Union Square
Subway: 6 to 23rd Street; 4,5,6, L, N, R, Q, W to 14th Street-Union Square
Established in 1864, Pete’s Tavern claims to be the oldest continuously operating bar business in Manhattan. McSorley’s Old Ale House disagrees. What is not debatable is that Pete’s Tavern is among the pantheon of venerable gin mills in Fun City.

With its dark wood booths and lamppost-like lighting fixtures, Pete’s Tavern harks back to a simpler time. O. Henry penned The Gift of the Magi within its cozy confines. This fact alone makes Pete’s Tavern a place with as much history as beer behind its bar.

86 Bedford Street
(between Grove and Barrow Streets)
West Village
Subway: 1 to Christopher Street; A, B, C, D, E, F, V to West 4th Street
Nestled amidst residential apartments, Chumley’s is located in the West Village, but not so easy to find. That’s because this former speakeasy still appears as it did when it first opened for business in 1922. It has no sign—other than a brass “86” attached to a nondescript, solid wooden door—and no neon beer bottles beckoning thirsty passersby. Inside its labyrinthine interior is a maze of secret passageways. The pub’s entrance is actually on Barrow Street and not Bedford Street.

Chumley’s is the last New York City speakeasy that remains intact, sham entrance and all. It is a bona fide throwback to the most historical moment in the annals of American boozing—when, courtesy of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, drinking of any kind of spirits was expressly forbidden. After its much-ballyhooed passage, consumption of alcohol didn’t exactly cease and desist; it merely went underground, so to speak—so to speakeasy.

When the law showed up at Chumley’s ostensible front door—at 86 Bedford Street—during the era of Prohibition in the 1920s, a barroom sentry would cry out, “86!” This would clue imbibing patrons to make a hasty retreat to a back exit. The wood floors at Chumley’s still have the trapdoors cut into them, which were also used by the aforementioned lawbreakers to vanish into the ether.

With its original booths and a toasty fireplace crackling during cold climes, Chumley’s is, at present, totally above ground—i.e., you don’t have to worry about New York’s Finest busting into the joint and hauling you off to the poke. It is, nonetheless, exactly as it was in the Roaring ‘20s, when Chumley’s was violating the law along with an estimated 100,000 competitor speakeasies scattered all across New York City.

Since it first opened its doors—mock and genuine—Chumley’s has served spirits to an array of famous literati, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Eugene O’Neill, Dorothy Parker, J.D. Salinger, Arthur Miller, and William Burroughs. Today, canine companions are welcome in Chumley’s. How many contemporary bars do you know that have Welcome Mats out for both the two and the four-legged?

***“ No person shall on or after the date when the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States goes into effect, manufacture, sell, barter, transport, import, export, deliver, furnish, or possess any intoxicating liquor except as authorized in this act.” Prohibition became federal law on January 16, 1920. It took thirteen years for drinking to see the light of day again, when the Twenty-first Amendment consigned national Prohibition to the ash heap of history in December 1933, returning the powers to regulate liquid spirits to the individual states.

Bridge Café
279 Water Street
(at Dover Street)
Subway: 2, 3, 4, 5, A, C, J, M, Z to Fulton Street/Broadway-Nassau Street
In the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, the aptly named Bridge Café operates in a structure erected in 1794. The site first hosted a tavern in 1847, and it has remained one ever since, although under assorted names and proprietors. Thus, the Bridge Café can legitimately say it is kith and kin to a bar business that dates back to before the Civil War and, of course, the subsequent building of the Brooklyn Bridge.

For sure, the Bridge Café is no McSorley’s Old Ale House or Pete’s Tavern in the city’s vaunted saloon lore. This restaurant and pub, a few blocks away from the South Street Seaport, is far removed from the porterhouse that opened for business more than a century and a half ago. New breeds of tourists and those making money hand over fist in “financial services” have supplanted the grizzled and rowdy bunch of salty seaman and pirates who originally frequented the spot, not to mention the scores of prostitutes who made a pretty piece of change there. Nevertheless, the Bridge Café’s building is more than two centuries old and a hop, skip, and jump away from one of the world’s most renowned bridges—the first, by the way, lit with electricity. These historical and geographical facts ensure that a visit to the Bridge Café is always a one-of-a-kind experience.

Ear Inn
The James Brown House
326 Spring Street
(between Greenwich and Washington Streets)
SoHo, NoHo, Little Italy
Subway: 1 to Canal Street; C, E to Spring Street
When this three-story brick building rose in 1817, it was waterfront property and subject to flooding from the mercurial ebb and flow of the mighty Hudson River. The edifice’s original owner, a man named James Brown, sold tobacco from the premises and may have been a former slave. Some folks claim that he is the black soldier at General George Washington’s knee in the famous 1854 “Washington Crossing the Delaware” painting by Emanuel Leutze. But whatever the truth is behind the life of James Brown, his former property could arguably claim to be the spot that hosts the oldest bar business, although with several interruptions, still serving spirits in twenty-first century Manhattan.

Indeed, records indicate that there was a tavern business in the building as far back as 1835, and probably before that. A pub at the James Brown House serviced thousands of thirsty dockworkers and sailors in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Suffice it to say, both the West Village area and the property itself have witnessed a sea of changes since those days of yore. For one, Twelfth Avenue landfill has seen to it that the James Brown House and the Ear Inn on its ground floor are no longer on the water’s edge, but a block and a half away from the Hudson River.

The Ear Inn received its current moniker from Rip Hyman and friends, who purchased the property in the 1970s. At the time, the new owners published a music journal called The Ear and decided to name the pub after it. Since the building had already been classified a National Register City Landmark, they were prohibited from erecting any new business signs. Fortunately for them, a classic neon “BAR” sign hung outside of the place. Employing a bit of ingenuity and a lot black paint, the new owners covered the tubes in the neon sign’s “B,” creating a thoroughly convincing “E.” Instead of a “BAR” sign, there now hangs a spiffy looking “EAR” sign. And, to avoid any confusion, the sign also notes the year of the building’s birth as not merely 1817, but 1817 A.D. Poetry readings are regularly held at today’s Ear Inn.

***There are many reports of haunted New York City locations, including the structure that houses the Bridge Café. Some folks claim that ghosts of long dead pirates, who patronized the tavern when gentlemen with names like Andrew H. Mickle and William V. Brady were the city’s mayors, and the country’s president was James K. Polk, haunt the same grounds these many years later. Phantoms have also been sighted in the rafters of the White Horse Tavern, with one of the apparitions the spirit of Romantic poet Dylan Thomas, perhaps regretting that over indulgence in whiskey on that fateful night in 1953. And, not surprisingly, the ghost of James Brown purportedly hangs around his former property and the Ear Inn on its ground floor. It should also be noted that more than a few pink elephants have been seen at these locations, too.

Smith’s Bar & Restaurant
701 Eighth Avenue
(corner of 44th Street)
SmithsBar.comSubway: 1, 2, 3, 7, A, C, E, N, R, Q, W, S to 42nd Street/Times SquareIts weathered neon sign harks back to the halcyon glory days of New York City. The pub’s website proclaims, “WE LOOK BETTER AFTER A FEW BEERS.” Indeed, Smith’s Bar & Restaurant remains, almost defiantly, in the heart of the fabled Theater District, as a still operational relic of a more colorful period in the city’s long history.

Once the hangout of Jason Robards and other hard-drinking Broadway actors of yesteryear, it is an alternative to the decidedly more upscale and legendary Sardi’s right down the block. Smith’s is the quintessential New York corner bar that serves the “coldest beer in the neighborhood” and sandwiches and burgers at sandwich and burger prices. Smith’s hasn’t changed an iota since 1954, when it first opened for business in an area known as “Hell’s Kitchen.”

Once recognized for its seedy charm and alluring menace, the neighborhood is today a wee bit different, but not Smith’s. Those looking for a snack before curtain time, or a quick one during intermission, can expect nothing fancy, but they can enjoy a glimpse backward into the Golden Age of Broadway, when Disney did not have a prepackaged extravaganza in every other theater and tickets did not cost $100 apiece. Those in the vicinity looking for a sudsy brew, or two, or three—morning, noon, or night—will find that Smith’s Welcome Mat is always out. And while you are there, you can rub elbows with a dying breed: real New Yorkers, born and bred in Hell’s Kitchen, for whom Smith’s is just a neighborhood bar. Catch them while you can, for we shall not see their likes again.

1 comment:

  1. How about self-publish on LULU and make it an ebook. Sounds like a winner to me. And, you get to keep more of the take.

    (I did it more as vanity. And, inflating my own ego.)

    Zero capital investment. Got it listed on Amazon. My friends and family are impressed. ROFL, me not so much. I know how little it takes to do it. :-)


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