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Bar Review: McSorley’s Old Ale House

Submitted by on November 28, 2009 – 2:02 PM2 Comments
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McSorley’s Old Ale House
15 East 7th Street
New York, NY 10003

Hours of Operation:
Monday – Saturday: 11AM – 1AM
Sunday: 1PM – 1AM

Best time to visit: Because of its notoriety and location just south of St. Marks, McSorely’s gets pretty crowded especially on weekends. Best time to go would be a weeknight in the early evening.

McSorley's In Manhattan’s McSorley’s Old Ale House, a newspaper clipping printed on the back of every menu describes the saloon as “an ancient landmark, a relic of one phase of American life that has passed.” It goes on to praise the then-60 year old bar as a stoic establishment where philosophers can assemble their thoughts over a humble mug of ale and enjoy the sense of permanence in an atmosphere impervious to the rapid changes brought on in the early 20th century. Did I mention that this article was written 96 years ago?

While not the oldest bar in Manhattan, McSorley’s is still old–really old, in fact. Debatably established in 1854 (some say it’s more like the early 1860s, but who’s counting?), not much has changed about the old saloon since renowned anarchist Hutchins Hapgood penned his above review of the bar for “Harper’s Weekly” in 1913. Lined with knick-knacks and a mess of yellowed artwork and newspaper clippings, the bar’s graffiti-marred, wood paneled walls read like a history book of post-Civil War America. When perusing the decades worth of etchings on the doors and tables, you half expect to come across something lambasting the Lincoln administration. And while the patronage has shifted from the stoic Nietzsche readers to boisterous groups of men and women, the bar still slings the same mugs of house ale that our ancestors drank while debating the Conscription Act.

Rather than bombarding you with a list of beers that goes out the door, McSorley’s offers up only two ales: light and dark, both McSorely’s brand. The light is a crisp pale ale with a solid bite of hops, and the dark is a porter with hints of chocolate. The light is better than the dark, but both go down easy and at $4.25 for two half pint mugs, that’s probably the most important part. The service is gruff, but welcoming. The single server stalks around the bar with 6 mugs in each hand, taking orders and slamming beers down on the table with reckless abandon.

The two traditional McSorley flavors are ale and raw onion, and nothing has changed on that front either. The liverwurst sandwich comes out with two full slices of raw onion resting on top its generous helping “meat.” The mellow flavor of the liverwurst combined with the onion and incredibly spicy mustard that sits on each table punches you right in the nose. It’s pretty good in that “I am a man” sort of way, like sucking down a raw oyster or snacking on live, angry hornets.

The main problem with McSorley’s, aside from the heavy crowds that cram in on weekends, is its reluctance to let go of traditions good or bad. The bar didn’t allow women in until 40 years ago, and it looks like the chandelier hasn’t been dusted since the Spanish-American war (It should be noted that wishbones placed there by men being shipped off to World War I were placed there, they did not return to get them). We get the point, the place is old, now clean the inch thick coat of dust that hangs off of everything. There are probably flakes of skin older than penicillin looming in that place.

McSorley’s appeal transcends mere age. Certainly, hanging out in a bar that hasn’t changed in 100 years has its appeal, but the reason McSorley has been open for so long is because it has a winning formula. The ale is cheap and plentiful, and the atmosphere rich with warmth. It’s the kind of bar where portly men can walk up the bar and reasonably order a dozen beers. Barring fire, McSorley’s Old Ale House is likely to outlive us all. Even if it is a little dirty.

Pros: Cheap and tasty ale, rich history and bold food

Cons: Crowded at times, curiously grimy in places. The sawdust strewn about the floor is a bit much.

Rating: 4 out of 5