For a good chunk of history, writing and boozing have gone hand in hand. Some of the best books to ever have been written were penned because of, in dedication of, or in spite of the Devil’s drink. According to Lewis Hyde, four of the six Americans who have won the Nobel Prize for Literature were alcoholics: namely William Faulkner, Eugene O’Neill, Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck. It comes as no surprise, then, that in the last century, if you had wandered into one of the many booze-soaked bars New York has to offer, you may have ended up sharing a tipple with a great American author. And luckily for us, many of these fine establishments are still around. Whether to drink at tables where many groundbreaking books were thought up, or to write your very own masterpiece, here are five fantastic literary bars you really shouldn’t miss exploring.
Chumley’s is a drinking establishment with a frankly brilliant history to it. It started it’s life in 1922 as a Speakeasy by Lee Stanford Chumley, where patrons could snag a drink away from the prying eyes of the law enforcement. It is said that Chumley’s is where the term to ’86 it’ comes from, as next door was 86 Bedford St and the police would call ahead before a raid, to tell their bartender to ’86’ his customers, meaning have them exit via the 86 Bedford St. door, as the Police would be coming to the Pamela Court entrance, so no-one would be caught. The facade of the building collapsed in 2007, which led to it being closed for just under 10 years, until it reopened in 2016 with a complete refurbishment. If you head in there today, they still have all the covers of books written by authors who once drank in the bar adorning the walls. These include Jack Kerouac, Ernest Hemingway, Edna St. Vincent Millay, William Faulkner, e.e. cummings, John Steinbeck, Willa Cather, Theodore Dreiser, Ring Lardner, Eugene O’Neill and John Dos Passos to name but a few. For most of it’s history Chumley’s was a rather dank, dark dive bar, but after it’s refurbishment, it has reopened as a more upmarket restaurant and cocktail bar, so if you come here expect to pay a pretty penny. Chumley’s is featured on our Ghost Tour, if you want to hear more about the building and a spooky story or two, too!
If you are looking for something more affordable with as much literary history to boot, you can’t really go wrong with the White Horse Tavern in the West Village. It has been run continuously since 1880 and so is vying for the title of the second-oldest bar in NYC. It is here where apparently in November 1953, after a massive bender, the poet Dylan Thomas stopped in to have his very last drinks on the way back to the Chelsea Hotel before passing away. It’s where the Beat poets liked to drink, and where locals mixed with the early folk music scene of the 1950s and 1960s. The likes of James Baldwin, Anaïs Nin, Bob Dylan, Norman Mailer and Hunter S. Thompson were often spotted drinking late into the night here. Jack Kerouac was famously chucked out of the bar on several occasions, and wrote that he spotted ‘Go home Jack’ written all over the urinals. Kerouac was, of course, the creator of the Beatnik movement and to find out more about them, the Bohemians and the folk scene which were all happening down in the Village, it’s worth checking out our Greenwich Village Tour.
Another bar with pressed-tin ceilings and a strong literary history but with a more ornate feel than the White Horse, is Pete’s Tavern, located near Gramercy Park. Dating back to 1864, Pete’s claims to be the oldest continuously operating bar/restaurant in the whole of New York City. And with a history that long, at some point a writer is going to have stumbled through its doors looking to quench their thirst. One such man was William Sydney Porter, also known as O. Henry, who is said to have written his well-known story ‘The Gift of the Magi’ here in the second booth from the front door. Pete’s Tavern actually appears in another of O. Henry’s, called ‘The Lost Blend’ under the name ‘Kenealy’s’, paying homage to it’s name at the time, which was Healy’s. Another writer was Ludwig Bemelmans who wrote the first Madeline book here, apparently on the back of a menu. Today, Pete’s Tavern offers a casual drinking spot with great Italian eats, and is a great place to stop off after you’ve taken our Gramercy Park Tour.
For a taste of something a little different, why not try the Alonquin Hotel? One of midtown’s grand old hotels and a world away from the cheaper, dive-y literary bars of the Village, the Algonquin offers a rich literary history and luxurious surroundings to match. To this day, you can sit at the Round Table where the 1920s writing/theatrical group, The Vicious Circle (composed of members such as Dorothy Parker, Alexander Woollcott and Robert Benchley) used to meet with such frequency that their name changed to match the table they were sat at. The Round Table was comprised of playwrights, critics, columnists and authors. One being Harold Ross who won so much money from other members of the Vicious Circle in a game of poker that he used the proceeds to start the New Yorker magazine with Parker as a book reviewer and Benchley as the drama critic. The Hotel’s Blue Bar is a must-see for visiting literary historians and for a martini, and no trip to the Algonquin is complete without seeing the plush surroundings of the hotel’s lobby, including a mini-chaise lounge for the Hotel’s resident cat.
Last but not least has to be McSorley’s Old Ale House. Established in 1854, McSorley’s rivals Pete’s Tavern for the oldest bar in New York, because records seem to suggest it was closed for a spell in the 1860s, so Pete’s lays claim to the title. A great place for decent pub food, two types of ale (no literally – that’s all they serve here) and memorabilia that hasn’t been taken off the walls since at least 1910, McSorley’s generally rates in the top historic bars in New York to visit. It’s literary past is vast, in 1923 e.e. cummings penned ‘i was sitting in mcsorley’s’, it was the subject of Joseph Mitchell’s New Yorker collection of stories ‘McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon’ (1943) and its patrons ran the gamut of writers to presidents, including Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant. Teddy Roosevelt, Peter Cooper, Boss Tweed, Woody Guthrie, Hunter S. Thompson, Brendan Behan, Paul Blackburn, LeRoi Jones, Christopher Morley, Gilbert Sorrentino, George Jean Nathan, Dave Van Ronk, Wavy Gravy and even Dustin Hoffman.
Though these are some of my favorites, New York’s history is long and eclectic, so you are bound to find bars rich in literary history all over the city. Some honorable mentions include: