With the lager warming me and history staring down from the walls, I can feel the spirits of McSorley’s Old Ale House creeping up on me.
On the ground floor of a five-story red-brick tenement off Cooper Square in East Village sits McSorley’s Old Ale House. Inside, sawdust litters the floor and on a Saturday night seasoned locals stand at the bar cheek-by-jowl with college students and tourists. Decorating the walls from floor to ceiling is an astonishing profusion of memorabilia – framed portraits of American presidents, American flags, old political posters and playbills, lithographs and engravings, ancient newspaper clippings. There is a framed front page of the New York Herald bearing word of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.
The bar’s precise date of founding has been lost to time; some accounts say 1854, while city records seem to indicate McSorley’s opened its doors a few years later, in 1858 or 1860, though the records may be incomplete. It is said that Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt drank here, but what is certain is that many notable men down through the ages have warmed themselves on mugs of the house ale.
In 1940, when Joseph Mitchell wrote about it for The New Yorker, it was already the oldest drinking-house in the city. Tradition dies hard here. The biggest change to take place at McSorley’s in recent decades was the admission of women in 1970, who for most of its history were politely but firmly barred from the premises. And then, too, there are no more cats. Lounging felines were once a mainstay of the establishment, but no longer – at the insistence of the city health department.
Patrons have a simple choice: light or dark. McSorley’s pale ale and black lager come in 10-ounce mugs and you get two mugs for five dollars. This counts as a good deal in New York City. I order the black lager and a man with gray whiskers carries the foaming mugs to my table. I take a swallow and watch him deal next with two tables of rowdy college students; somehow he carries 20 mugs at once and sets them down to cheers without spilling a drop.
In his day, Mitchell described its patrons as local Irish and German workers: butchers and brewers, carpenters and bricklayers, the core of which were “a rapidly thinning group of crusty old men, predominantly Irish, who have been drinking there since they were youths and now have a proprietary feeling about the place.”
The clientele has changed, but McSorley’s is still a top place in East Village where you can find refreshment after a hard day’s work, or pass the better part of a lazy Saturday.
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