Friday, March 31, 2006

Really Old Bars

Old Town Bar on 18th Street between Broadway and Park is one of New York’s oldest bars. You can tell by the urinals in the men’s room – they’re like bathtubs set upright, they’re so huge.

I found it one evening last summer. I was going to a one man, one act play off Union Square – alone – and I was early. I wanted somewhere to get a quick drink and sit and read. Where in the City can you do that? I wandered the streets around Union Square for twenty minutes, slowly circulating outward until I saw the red neon: Old Town Bar. Perfect.

It’s hard to pin down Old Town’s clientele because it’s just a bar. Not a hipster bar, or a “design” bar, or any type of bar at all. That’s not to say it doesn’t have character – it does: the ornate ceilings look about 20 feet up and the mirrors behind the bar are stained from what looks like one hundred years of smoke and water damage.

Speaking of smoke, New York Magazine quoted the manager on how Bloomberg’s smoking ban had affected Old Town (and four other restaurant/bars):

“To us it seems like a wash; we’ve lost customers. But it’s had benefits we didn’t expect, like there’s more turnover at tables, particularly with women who light up a cigarette after a meal and hold up a table for another fifteen minutes. And we have chandeliers that once we clean them, they stay clean. If the law were overturned, yeah, we would allow smoking again. We’re an old-style tavern where cigar smoking and things of that nature are part of the experience.” (New York Magazine, April 3, 2006)

It’s true – Old Town is the type of bar where you ask if they have matches these days and the bartender’s face lights up. He’ll hand you a nice box of them with a night-time photo of the bar on the front.

I thought I read an article in New York Magazine about Old Town and a handful of other really old bars in the City. Turns out I read it framed on the wall at Old Town. The article was in New York -- in January 2000. Old Town opened in 1892.

Another New York article tells about the Bridge Café, which opened in 1794. McSorley’s, the only other really old bar I’ve been to opened in 1854 (or 1862, depending on who you ask) and didn’t let women in until 1970. The above article says: “poet e.e. cummings penned a poem entitled “i was sitting in mcsorley’s.” In it, he describes the bar as “snugandevil.”” The waiters – gruff middle-aged men – wear these strange thin cotton bartender jackets the likes of which I’ve only seen in the UK.

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