In the past 400 years, New York has gone from a remote wilderness at the corner of the world, to a remote Dutch trading post at the corner of the world, to a major city in the 13 Colonies, to a bustling port in a fledgeling United States, to one of the most important and recognizable cities in the entire world. There are plenty of places where you can get in touch with New York’s history; you could visit a museum or go to the New York Public Library. But one of the best ways to enjoy history is with a good meal or a few rounds of drinks. I recently came across an article that shares some of the best historic bars and restaurants in the city. They had some great options here, but in my opinion the author missed a couple key ones. Here’s what they had to say, with some additions from me:
Fraunces Tavern: Over 250 years old, Fraunces Tavern also operates as a museum and is registered as a national historic landmark. It’s arguably the most historically significant place on the list; it briefly served as George Washington’s headquarters during the American Revolution and was where peace negotiations with the British took place at the end of the war. Today you can enjoy colonial-inspired pub fare alongside 200+ varieties of whiskeys, cocktails, ciders and craft beers in the same setting that the founding fathers did.
McSorley’s: When McSorley’s adopted the slogan “we were here before you were born”, they weren’t lying. Established in 1854, this is one of the oldest continuously-running bars in all of New York City. Covered with sawdust and mementos from its 160+ years of operation (none of which have been removed since 1910), McSorley’s prides itself on sticking to tradition and doing things the way they always did (they didn’t even let women in until the 1970s). Staffed by surly Irish bartenders, it’s a cash-only establishment with an unabashedly simple and limited number of options: the food menu fits onto a small chalkboard, and your alcohol options are limited to either “light” or “dark” beer (according to legend, they also served whiskey for a brief period in the late 19th century, although it didn’t go well). While it might not be everybody’s cup of tea, McSorley’s is an institution and an essential experience, particularly for those people interested in New York’s history.
One if by Land, Two if by Sea: Although it’s just around 43 years old, this place is situated within a carriage house built in 1767. For those who can afford the pricey menu, it’s one of the romantic date spots in New York, with numerous engagements happening here every year. That’s not too hard to understand; the ambience here perfectly channels history and old-world charm to appeal to just about everybody.
21 Club: First opened in 1922 at the height of Prohibition, 21 Club started its life out as a speakeasy and survived several raids by Prohibition agents. It moved around locations before finally settling at 21 West 52nd Street, where it’s remained since 1929. Since then it’s been frequented by countless celebrities and film and TV characters. It serves up traditional American cuisine and delicious signature cocktails, reminiscent of its days as a speakeasy.
Apotheke: Apotheke isn’t exactly an old business, but that’s not to discredit its historical significance. This speakeasy is located in Chinatown on a bend of Doyers Street known as the “Bloody Angle”, which in the early 20th century was a popular spot for fights between Chinese gangs. Apotheke itself is housed in a building that during that era served as an opium den. Although it was established fairly recently, Apotheke relishes in the history that comes with being a speakeasy in such an historic neighborhood, and regularly features “Prohibition nights” with live jazz music.
Katz’s Deli: In the 1940s, there were over 2,000 Jewish delis around New York City proudly slinging pastrami and matzoh ball soup. Now that number has dwindled to about 20, so those who have survived need to be very good at what they’re doing. One of the oldest and best of these is Katz’s in the Lower East Side; since it was first founded in 1888, it has outlasted countless other restaurants and delis around the city. It might be a tourist trap, but that’s only because it’s delicious, and a sandwich from them piled high with pastrami and corned beef is well worth the hectic lines.
Keens Steakhouse: Since it was first established in 1885 (just two years before the New York’s other well-known steakhouse, Peter Luger’s), this has served as the go-to hangout for famous actors, producers, playwrights and other big names in show business. They’re known for their mutton chops here, and the ceiling plays hosts to over 50,000 smoking pipes. Notable patrons here include Teddy Roosevelt, Babe Ruth, Will Rogers and Albert Einstein. Like McSorley’s, it started out as a “men’s only” establishment, although that was overturned in 1905 after being sued by actress Lillie Langtry.
Barbetta: This upscale Italian restaurant was first founded in 1906. Grand chandeliers and antiques dating from the 18th century fill the dining room. This was the first New York restaurant to “elegantly” approach Italian cuisine in an era when such food was considered “rustic”. If it’s warm out, you can dine outside in the garden, which is filled with flowers, statues and a fountain to give the feel of a European country estate.