For a serving of New York’s colorful history with your beer, check out the three oldest bars in the city.
With about 1,800 bars, New York City has something for just about every beer aficionado. But what if you’re thirsty for history? There’s no shortage of dusty, run-down places to drink, and multiple bars call themselves “the oldest in the city.”
Although that title is hotly contested, we recommend pulling up a stool and tossing one back at these three storied institutions:
Built in 1719 and first operating as a tavern in 1762, this downtown Georgian mansion is an essential NYC historic site regardless of the beer on tap. Fraunces hosted clandestine Patriot groups during the Revolutionary War, and George Washington himself gave a famous farewell address to his officers in 1783.
However, the tavern’s history has been a little more turbulent over the past 200 years. Fires in 1832 and 1852 destroyed most of the original facade, and the building was renovated so thoroughly that its original layout is unknown. In 1907, the whole structure was torn down and replaced by an exact copy of the original 1719 mansion.
In 1975, the tavern played host to another group of revolutionaries — this time with tragic consequences. FALN, a Puerto Rican extremist group, detonated a bomb in the barroom, killing four and wounding 50.
It’s perhaps best to think of the current building as a sort of museum tribute to Fraunces Tavern. There’s a thorough collection of artifacts upstairs, including rare diaries from the Battle of Yorktown, and a cozy bar and restaurant downstairs.
McSorley’s is worth visiting for its olfactory qualities alone. In 1940, the New Yorker described its scent as “a really rich compound of the smells of pine sawdust, tap drippings, pipe tobacco, coal smoke, and onions,” and most of those notes persist just as pungently as ever. By all accounts, the bar room has remained virtually unchanged since opening night, and a dense array of wall hangings commemorates the three presidents and various celebrities (Hunter S. Thompson and Boss Tweed, among them) who have stopped by over the years.
Although the bar claims to have remained in constant operation since 1854, city records show that the founding date is at least a few years later. Well, at least the urinals are certifiably over 100 years old. McSorley’s only offers two drinks: light ale and dark ale, both brewed exclusively for their taps. According to custom, a complimentary spread of cheese, crackers, and onions is set out on the counter, and ancient lore claims that it’s the same kind of cheese served at the grand opening party.
McSorley’s has made at least one big change over the years: women are now allowed on the premises, thanks to a 1970 civil rights lawsuit. The bar has since retired their original motto: “Good Ale, Raw Onions, and No Ladies.”
This quiet neighborhood pub might just have the most valid claim to the “oldest in New York” title. Founded in 1829 and operated continually through the present (with a break for prohibition), Neir’s goes by the slogan, “the most famous bar you’ve never heard of.” Neir’s has changed ownership and its name every few decades, but the taproom is virtually untouched since its days serving the racetrack that was once located across the street.
Despite its low-key atmosphere, the spot was a prominent location in Goodfellas and the Ben Stiller film Tower Heist. On the off chance you make it out to Woodhaven, Queens, Neir’s is quite possibly the most authentic way to get your dose of liquid history.