Nestled in the heart of the east village, McSorley’s is known as one of the city’s oldest bars, and it is a straight up slice of of NYC history.
I’ve lived in New York my whole life, and one of the things I love most about this city are those little gems of restaurants and bars and shops that you can stumble into at any moment. While McSorley’s Old Ale House is not one of those stumbled-into places for me (I’ve spent many a long night at this bar), it is one that I consider to be a hidden gem of the city, a slice of history, a time-machine that lives among us. And between the stories held behind it’s doors and the gorgeous slights, colors, and textures that make up this 160 year old bar, it is the absolute perfect place to take pictures.
McSorley’s is as no frills as it gets. On a Wednesday around noon the small bar is filled with a mix of obvious regulars and unmistakeable tourists, there to catch a glimpse of the history of the place, all huddled around circular tables with a century’s worth of carvings and notches etched into the sturdy old wood. But there is no discrimination between the old timers and the newcomers here. Every guest is offered the same choice between dark or light beer – the only alcohol you’ll find behind the bar – and a traditional but tasty menu complete with what some claim is the best burger in New York City.
The bar has a rich history, evidenced by the yellowing pictures, newspaper clippings and historical artifacts that adorn the walls and bar, everything from hundred year old framed staff photos to sports articles about players that died long before I was born. When John Mcsorley, the ale house’s original owner, died, his son nailed all of the hangings to the wall so that the bar would always remain exactly how his father left it, and that’s how it remains to this day. No piece of memorabilia has been removed from the bar or walls since 1910. Regulars and guests known to frequent the ale house range from Theodore Roosevelt to Babe Ruth to John Lennon. A chair that Abraham Lincoln once sat in is kept safe behind the bar, along with a horseshoe rumored to be from a horse that pulled his casket. A pair of Harry Houdini’s handcuffs are still shackled to the bar rail. And of course, there’s the infamous wishbones that hang from one of the lamps, said to be left there by WWI soldiers before they shipped out. The ones that remained have owners who never returned to claim them.
Not only is it’s history long and deep, McSorley’s is a place that is not very easily touched by modern society. The bar has been so engrained in its traditions that it actually didn’t even allow women in until 1970, despite being owned by a woman at the time. And today, the only evidence of the 21st century that seems to exist beyond the front door is the single flatscreen TV hanging on the wall in the back. As cliche as it sounds, stepping into McSorley’s really does feel like stepping into a time capsule. Sitting in the picturesque afternoon sunlight streaming in through leaded glass windows, you almost feel as if you could be surrounded by fresh faced Irish and German immigrants at the turn of the century, or teenaged WWI and WWII soldiers before they shipped out and then again when they returned home, harrowed and immeasurably aged. You can practically see E.E. Cummings sitting at the dust strewn corner table, penning the line “I was sitting in McSorley’s. Outside it was New York and beautifully snowing.”
The dust covered clock that hangs beside the bar hasn’t kept time in what seems like ages, and this fits right in at McSorley’s. It is a place where time seems to stand still, a place where the past is a living and breathing organism so vibrant that it seamlessly becomes a part of the present, a place where you can get lost in the world of old New York.