It’s not exactly a location one easily stumbles across, but that’s how I discovered McSorley’s on a damp, chilly afternoon in April. The façade, barrels on the sidewalk, and the wooden sign “McSorley’s Old Ale House” beckoned me inside to a décor befitting its name. Stepping through the swinging doors to find sawdust on the floor, tables scarred with etchings and overuse, the original bar from 1854, memorabilia adorning the walls, artifacts behind the bar, a fire in the old pot-bellied stove, and I knew immediately I’d chanced upon a gem.
It was my first visit to New York City. I’ve no idea how or why I ended up on East 7th Street, but I know for sure what lures me back. In fact, I wouldn’t dream of visiting New York without dropping into McSorley’s with friends or family in tow.
Glimpses into New York City’s history
While the exact date McSorley’s came into being is open to debate, it’s believed Irish immigrant John McSorley established the saloon in 1854. One thing’s for sure: it’s been around a long time. The other is that this neighbourhood fixture is the custodian of some amazing New York relics.
Treasures are everywhere. John McSorley had a passion for memorabilia, and newspaper articles, photographs, sheet music and artwork grace the walls. Abraham Lincoln supposedly visited here after giving his famous Cooper Union address in 1860, and a chair where he allegedly sat is kept behind the bar. There’s a pair of hobnail boots from Joe Kennedy’s bootlegging days, and Harry Houdini’s handcuffs dangle from the bar rail.
Perhaps the most revered of all is the collection of turkey wishbones hanging from the old gas lamp above the bar. Legend has it that starting with World War I, patrons leaving for war hung wishbones for good luck, and those that remain belong to soldiers who didn’t return. These treasured items pay tribute to the sacrifice of soldiers whose human bones lie in graves elsewhere, whether it be France, Vietnam, Afghanistan or Iraq.
If you’ve come to this venerable New York City watering hole for craft beer, a glass of wine or a shot of liquor, you’re out of luck. It’s ale or ale. Mugs of house-brand McSorley’s Dark Ale and McSorley’s Light Ale are served in pairs. Ordering is easy. Just say “light” or “dark” and the quantity. On my last visit, we were a group of four. “Four light, please,” and our eight mugs of amber gold, each with a generous head of froth were placed on the bar. Easy peasy. No “What’s on tap?” or “Do you have…?” or “What sizes do you serve?” No decisions, except choosing whether to have light or dark. I love it.
If you don’t drink either, head to McSorley’s anyway, for the experience. Wander around, and soak up the history and the ambience of the place. Picture Woody Guthrie, John Steinbeck, John Lennon, or e.e. Cummings inspiring future generations with words crafted at one of McSorley’s tables. Imagine JFK, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle or Theodore Roosevelt enjoying a pint at the bar. Visualize the euphoric New York Rangers drinking from their newly won Stanley Cup on that June night in 1994. Speculate how the cup might have sustained the dent that sent it back the National Hockey League for a few days for repairs.
McSorley’s lures you back
If your experience is anything like mine, McSorley’s will get under your skin, and your first visit won’t be your last. Patrons who move elsewhere return years later to reconnect with their glory days. At least, that’s what I concluded on one of my visits when sharing our table with a family of four.
Seating is limited, and sitting with strangers is expected. It’s part of the appeal. Within the family of four, the father was regaling the others with stories from his youth. He ordered one of his old favourites off the food menu – the cheese plate containing rows of sliced cheese, a pile of sliced raw onions and a tube of saltines straight from the box. High-end dining it’s not at McSorley’s. It’s comfort food, cheap and unpretentious. The youngsters didn’t seem to be impressed, but were doing their best to remain engaged out of respect for their father who was clearly enjoying joyful recollections of his past.
Tradition vs Change
McSorley’s has fiercely hung on to tradition. It’s said that not a single hanging on the old walls has been removed since 1910.
There have been times when McSorley’s resistance to change has collided with the authorities. The most notable was before women were finally allowed inside, after McSorley’s were forced to admit women in 1970. It took a successful Supreme Court challenge followed by an NYC anti-discrimination ordinance before McSorley’s crumbled under legal and political might. Look for the newspaper headline of the Daily News of August 11, 1970, marking the auspicious occasion.
Another was in 2011 when the NYC Health Department ordered the owner to remove, or, at the very least, dust off the wishbones hanging above the bar. By this time, the bones were grey, thickly coated with countless layers of dust. He finally acquiesced, sweeping away a century of gunk and dust in the process. The bones that survived the cleaning were dutifully returned to their resting place as a memorial to those soldiers never to return. But, just like the struggle concerning women, it wasn’t done willingly.
McSorley’s is easy to find. It sits where the East Village meets The Bowery, at East 7th Street (between 2nd and 3rd Avenue), just off Cooper Square.The closest subway stations are Astor Place (for the 6 line) and 8th Street/NYU (for the N and R lines).
Hours of operation are Monday to Saturday from 11:00 to 01:00, and Sunday from 13:00 to 01:00. It’s least crowded on weekday afternoons. My favourite visit was on that damp, chilly afternoon in April, cozying up to the warmth of the pot-bellied stove. It was quiet, and leaving didn’t come easily. My least favourite was on a busy Saturday afternoon when it was jam-packed, with standing room only. We stayed for just one round.
I’ll leave the final say to McSorley’s:
“It’s impossible to put into words the McSorley’s experience — there’s simply no substitute for being there. However, we hope, in our own small way, that we’ve given you a tipple of what you can expect when you finally come in and find out for yourself!”
Have you visited McSorley’s Old Ale House? If so, what was your experience?