We were in the East Village, and I was on an archaeological mission: to grab a beer at the oldest (and arguably most famous) pub in New York City. The place doesn’t even merit a Jeopardy! question – it’s McSorley’s Old Ale House, and if you’ve never heard of it, you’re not a Beer Person. We’d tried to have noodles at Ippudo and failed; an hour and a half wait for ramen (regardless of how good it may be) would’ve taken a gash out of our night. Time was of the essence, even in the city that never sleeps. We were leaving the next day. I didn’t feel bad about not taking the boat to the Statue of Liberty; I’d have been devastated if we had missed McSorley’s.
Now, I’m a pretty good traveler, doing my very best to adapt to local cultures and learn the local history. I’d done a bit of research on the place – first opened in 1854; famous patrons included Abe Lincoln, Woody Guthrie, John Lennon; allowed women in 1970. Yes, that last one’s true, and yes, by a “bit” I mean a bit – I read the front page of McSorley’s website in the hotel room earlier that evening. I should have read more – knowing a place solely by reputation sometimes isn’t enough, and it can certainly can lead to awkward moments. I strode up to the bar, looking like (I thought) a local in my black wool peacoat and Harry Potter scarf. “What can I get ye?”, the barkeep asked, in an Irish brogue. I grinned. “I’ll have a Guinness.” He gave me the look reserved for Southern California kooks who think they’re all East Village because they have black wool peacoats. “Don’t serve it”, he growled. “Got the light ale, and the dark.” I felt the eyes of every regular in the place. “Uh…the dark.” Beth ordered the light. I wondered if the ale came with a side order of crow. While we waited, we took the place in.
Hanging from the dusty light fixture are wishbones, and they have a story.
The beer – excuse me, the ale – is served by the pint, split into two mugs. It’s certainly easy on the wallet – $4.50 per – and very easy on the pallet. The dark ale is not heavy, more like a black lager, with barely a hint of hops. The light ale is a passable American-style pale ale; hopheads will be disappointed, but I liked the biscuity flavor and the sweet finish. The place serves food – I was told later that we shoulda order the famous cheese plate.
We were content to just sit and marvel. The decor hasn’t changed much over the past hundred years or so – the walls are completely covered with photos and newspaper clippings and art, some of which dates back to when McSorley’s first opened for business. There’s no TV, no music, just the hum of conversation. In the center of the pub is a marvelous, fully-functioning wood burning stove – it was roaring that night, and made the place warm in all respects. You’ll find a pair of Harry Houdini’s handcuffs if you look hard enough. And you’ll see dusty wishbones hanging off of the light fixture over the bar – the story goes that Yanks heading to Europe during the First World War hung them there, to retrieve them upon their return to the States. The ones that weren’t claimed remain.
We finished up our pints and headed out – destination, the Empire State Building. (The ale, sadly, didn’t provide me with enough liquid courage – the view from the top was lovely and completely terrifying.) I’ll make sure I return to McSorley’s for some ale and cheese the next time I’m in New York, and I highly recommend it for anyone looking for a little history with their beer – er, ale.
(Photo courtesy of Ontheinside.info)