King of the Five Boroughs
Old Town Is the Quintessential New York Bar
The iconic establishment turns 125 this year and may just be the ideal Big Apple watering hole.
What’s the most New York, New York bar? It’s one of the toughest questions you can ask a resident of the five boroughs given just how many iconic establishments are scattered across the city. While there is, of course, no definitive answer, several places certainly are serious contenders for the title.
It’s hard to have this debate without talking about McSorley’s Old Ale House in the East Village, which has been open since 1854 and was famously written about by its regular patron and New Yorker contributor Joseph Mitchell. And that’s not to mention, that its walls are covered with layers of historical ephemera that ranges from the mundane to the extraordinaire.
But to me McSorley’s is almost a category unto itself and transcends the Big Apple. The bar is a national landmark that belongs to another era. It is amazing that it’s not behind a Plexiglas barrier in a branch of the Smithsonian Museum near Julia Child’s kitchen and the first Margarita machine.
On account of this, I suggest taking McSorley’s out of the running. Don’t worry there are plenty of other important New York watering holes. In fact, if you go just 12 blocks north you’ll find another viable candidate, Old Town Bar.
Let me plead my case. Old Town Bar started out life as the German bar, Burckel Brothers Café, which opened back in 1892. An ornate business card from one of its original managers advertises the “Business Men’s Lunch Served from 11 to 3” and also proclaims the fact that it has a lodge room for clubs. (A saloon liquor license from 1896 is still hanging on the wall.)
During Prohibition, according to Gerry Meagher who now owns the bar with his family, it’s more than likely that it continued to serve alcohol. “We had a feeling they were,” he says. In fact, several of the booths have secret compartments that you can hide bottles of booze in. “I think people got their drinks.”
In the late 1930s, the establishment which had gone through several names and owners, was finally christened Old Town and most likely that’s when its signature neon sign, which still adorns the building, was installed. While the bar is now known as a draft beer and a hamburger kind of joint, back then the bartenders would make trays and trays of Old Fashioneds, which were hoisted to the second-floor dining room on dumbwaiters.
Meagher’s father, Larry, worked as a copy boy and later a photo engraver for a number of New York City newspapers, which were located not too far from the bar. “And he was a union rep and his union’s office was around the corner,” he says. “So, they would come in here from time to time and he thought to himself ‘wow! This could really be something.’ But the area was kind of rundown in those days.” The newspaper that Larry worked for ultimately went out of business, “which is not an uncommon thing anymore,” Meagher jokes. His father then went into the bar business in Brooklyn.
However, Larry continued to think about Old Town and would come by to see the owner Henry Lohden. By that point in the late 1960s and ‘70s the bar was really just getting by. The second floor was closed, the extensive menu of German food and the kitchen was gone and it was only open from 9 AM to 5 PM Monday through Friday and amazingly closed on the weekends. It certainly didn’t help business that the neighborhood was very quiet. “You could park a tractor trailer on the street outside,” says Meagher.
The only positive thing about this lack of attention and customers, was that the bar was never remodeled and to this day retains many of its original fixtures, including its extra-long mahogany bar and its legendary oversized urinals that date from the turn of the century.
“My father said let me open it for you at night and see what we can do,” Meagher remembers. Ultimately, the family was able to buy Old Town from Lohden in the early 1980s. It was fortuitous timing, since Manhattan was beginning to quickly gentrify and the area would soon be home to trendy restaurants, fancy stores and luxury apartments.
When I started going to bar about 20 years ago, it was once again bustling with long waits for booths and drinkers lined up three-deep at the bar during happy hour. And 125 years later, its old-world charm continues to be popular with each successive generation of drinkers. The ancient dumbwaiters are still in working order and are used to transport plates of food and drinks to thirsty and hungry patrons.
The beautiful interiors and high ceilings also got Hollywood’s attention. Dozens of movies and TV shows have been shot inside Old Town over the last 30 years, including a memorable scene in Whit Stillman’s Last Days of Disco and in the Sean Penn-vehicle, State of Grace. It also was shown in the intro to David Letterman’s show and even House of Pain shot part of the music video for its catchy jock anthem “Jump Around” in the bar.
So what does the future hold for Old Town? The next generation of Meagher’s family is already working at the establishment. But he admits, “I’m not planning on going anywhere.” And I can’t blame him!