McSorley’s Old Ale House
15 East 7th St
“Be Good or Be Gone” since 1854.
Established in 1854, McSorley’s Old Ale House claims to be the oldest saloon in New York. Pretty much everything is the way it used to be: the furniture, the bar, the old stove, the walls covered with memorabilia, and the thick smell of sawdust. (It was once said that for many mental disturbances, the smell in McSorley’s is more beneficial than psychoanalysis.)
This place feels frozen in time – from its establishment until 1940 McSorley’s has had only four owners, all four stubbornly devoted to tradition and adamantly opposed to any kind of change.
John McSorley, the Irish immigrant who founded the tavern, made it look and feel exactly like the place he used to frequent in the old country. Old John spent the whole day in the tavern and closed it when he felt like it. Every night for dinner he grilled himself a three-pound steak in the back-room fireplace. He liked his onions strong and ate them whole. His motto was, “Good ale, raw onions, and no ladies.”
John believed it impossible for men to drink in tranquility in the presence of women. No ladies were allowed into the saloon under any circumstances including natural disasters. The “no ladies” policy remained in effect until 1970 when it was challenged in court. Although the court ruled that ladies had to be allowed in, it took another 15 years to install a ladies bathroom.
Old John collected memorabilia and hung it on the tavern’s walls. The most touching items, however, are the dusty wishbones swinging from above the bar. It became a tradition for the boys going off to World War I to hang a turkey bone from their last dinner at the tavern, meant to be removed upon their return. Sadly, the wishbones that we see today were left by those who never came back.
Old Bill, John’s devoted son who inherited the bar, nailed every piece of John’s memorabilia to the walls, never to be moved. Old Bill didn’t have any children and passed on the ownership of the tavern to a policeman who frequented the bar, who in turn passed it on to his daughter. Even though she owned the tavern, she never stepped in during working hours out of respect for the tradition.
Abraham Lincoln, after delivering the famous Cooper Union speech which launched his 1860 presidential campaign, stopped by McSorley’s for a drink. Peter Cooper, Cooper Union’s founder, was himself a regular. Among others who frequented the place were Boss Tweed, Woody Guthrie, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Babe Ruth, John Lennon, Teddy Roosevelt, Harry Houdini, and E. E. Cummings, who wrote the poem “I was sitting in McSorley’s.”
One can still get a $4 bowl of chili and a $5 hefty sandwich. The place is cash-only but there is no cash register – the change is still stored in little bowls.
McSorley’s only serves house ale, with only one choice available: dark or light.