15 East 7th Street, New York, New York 10003
As historic bars go, McSorley’s Old Ale House stands alone. The New York City landmark is the oldest continuously-operating bar in America, and to this day serves only two drinks: lights and darks. Lights are light beers, darks are dark beers. Each is brewed by McSorley’s, on-site, and served in glass mugs.
Sandwiched in between creaky wall boards, sawdust shavings, fading paintings, and assorted Americana, an institution which literally breathes historic presence operates, uninterrupted by the cats who make it their home. Customers often have to wait for a cat to leave a chair to sit down, and the chair remains subject to repossession by the cat at its discretion. McSorley’s is a bar frozen in history; it stands like a rock in a stream, looking on resolutely while “progress” flows violently past. Its tenacity is exemplary. So exemplary, in fact, women weren’t allowed in the bar until 1970. In a world of attention deficit disorder and on-demand television, the bar’s singularity of purpose is a simple comfort.
The bar at McSorley’s doesn’t have stools; it’s standing-room only. Small wooden tables and benches are scattered around, and an original poster requesting “Information leading to the arrest of the assassin of Abraham Lincoln” sits behind the bar. The kitchen serves very little which is hot, and generally serves very little at all, except paper plates piled high with Saltine crackers in plastic sleeves, cheese, onions, and mustard. When the main customers were neighborhood Irish policemen, bartenders used to set out free plates of onions and cheese each afternoon.
The Maher family operates McSorley’s now; it’s the third family to own the bar since its founding by old John McSorley in 1854, who kept the interest in the McSorley family before selling to Daniel O’Connell, an Irish policeman and patron who became the first non-McSorley to manage the concern.