Ask any discerning New Yorker, “light or dark?”, and they will know straight away you’re talking about McSorley’s Old Ale House. Tucked away in the East Village, the venerable institution has quenched the thirst of everyone from Abraham Lincoln to the lower denizens of the Bowery since 1854. There’s only one drink served at one of the oldest spots in the city, John McSorley’s own beer, served in orders of two, distinctive small glasses, with the only option being whether you choose light or dark.
Whilst Manhattan continues to evolve and physically change at breakneck speed, step inside McSorley’s, feel the sawdust under your shoes, and enter a snug world where not much has changed since the days before the Civil War.
The bar was once painted by John Sloan in 1912, showing a handful of regulars whiling away the day with the owner’s son, Bill McSorley. A century later, not much has changed in a place as Sloan put it, ‘where the world seems shut out — where there is no time, nor turmoil’.
The bar is a living museum, where nothing has been taken down off the walls since 1910. Portraits of Teddy Roosevelt are framed alongside theatre billboards for long forgotten entertainments, photographs of summer picnics for McSorley’s regulars, and newspaper reports of games from long lost baseball teams like the Brooklyn Atlantics and the Philadelphia Centennials.
Artifacts that tell the story of 19th and early 20th century American history cram the shelves; rusted fire department helmets, a pair of Houdini’s handcuffs, shackles worn by a prisoner from the Civil War and a horse shoe that according to bar folklore came from a horse that pulled Lincoln’s hearse. No wonder the bar has printed on the glass facing East 7th Street the legend, ‘we were here before you were born.’
It is fair to say there are two experiences to be had in McSorley’s. Visit on a Friday or Saturday night, and the bar is packed mostly with visitors from out of town, and resembles a rowdy fraternity house. But we prefer to stop in during a quiet week day, when the old Ale House retains an air of an older, forgotten New York.
Step inside, and find a seat at a worn table by the cast iron stove, as the pale, wintry light filters through the windows, and you’ll see why McSorley’s used to be known as ‘the Old House at Home.’
This is the McSorley’s loved by writer Joseph Mitchell, who liked to write about the street characters who lived on the fringes of New York society. In 1943s, ‘McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon,’ he chronicled the motley clientele of the bar, the mechanics, booksellers, waterfront workers, bar room scroungers and old men who he met there:
“It is equipped with electricity,” Mitchell wrote, “but the bar is stubbornly lit with a pair of gas lamps, which flicker fitfully and throw shadows on the low, cobwebby ceiling each time someone opens the street door.”
But amidst all the relics of over 150 years of New York history to be discovered in McSorley’s, perhaps the most touching can be found hanging over the bar lamps, where you’ll find a row of wishbones. Before the health code authorities stepped in recently to have them cleaned, they were for decades covered in dust and untouched. The bones are perhaps the most moving of all memorials you might find to the First World War.
McSorley’s started a tradition of giving soldiers departing for the Front a leaving present of a free turkey & ale dinner. The turkey wishbones were then placed by the soldiers over the bar lamp rail for good fortune and a safe return home. On their return, the lucky soldiers would take down their wishbone and celebrate long into the night. Glance up today and you’ll see around two dozen wishbones, left behind by those young soldiers who didn’t return home. They are a simple, but moving reminder to the lost men who never again were asked the pleasurable question, ‘light or dark?’
What You’re Having :
The pro order is ‘six and six,’ half a dozen each of light and dark. We particularly like to eat the block of cheese that comes with crackers and half a raw onion, with an extra liverwurst sandwich on the side.
15, East 7th Street, New York, NY, 10003. 11am-1am. mcsorleysoldalehouse.nyc