Holidays in Manhattan: the City thins out except for a smattering of tourists. For a handful of key dates - Christmas, Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July - stores in restaurants in NYC uncharacteristically close down. But on days like these resident Manhattanites have a few staples they can rely upon.
P.J. Clarke’s - 915 Third Avenue, at 55th Street - (212) 317-1616
One of my favorites is the recently renovated, 19th-century tavern, P.J. Clarke's at East 55th Street and Third Avenue. Even on Christmas Day, when hanging around a bar can be pretty emotionally grim, Clarke's preserves a warm and festive mood as comforting as Capra film. Last night, as the fireworks over New York Harbor boomed, Clarke's was happy and active, the long bar ringing with drink orders, the back restaurant glowing, Sinatra on the juke box (the eclectic selection of jukebox tunes at Clarke's has been the source of interest and articles).
P.J. Clarke's is itself a hold out, a squat, brick building that dates from 1868 now on a block of skyscrapers (history of P.J. Clarke's). Clarke's was a neighborhood staple in the days when Third Avenue was packed with tenements and elevated trains rumbled at interval overhead. Louis Armstrong once played the trumpet in Clarke's back room. Jackie O was a visitor. Johnny Mercer supposedly wrote the song "One for My Baby" on a napkin at Clarke's long, wooden bar. Sinatra also used to frequent Clarke's. Sinatra admired the massive men's room urinals (that still exist), proclaiming that you could stand New York City Mayor Abe Beame inside one of them. The famous, refrigerator-sized urinals were pulled out and cast in plaster to create reproductions that will be installed in campanion locations for P.J. Clarke's located downtown and near Columbus Circle.
If you visit Clarke's today you will benefit from a significantly quieted scene and some excellent decor, menu and service improvements that have come from a wholesale re-building and re-birth of Clarke's. Across the street is the massive FDR Post Office, put up in 1967 during a surge of construction activity. Years previous to that Joseph Doelger had a brewery across the street from Clarke's. (Doelger, a Bavarian immigrant, made at least two towering family contributions to New York - he and his sons made one of the first, true New York lager beers; also his sister, Matilda, married "Battling" Jack West and gave birth to Mae West in 1893.) P.J. Clarke's seems never to forget. The songs on the juke echo from past days when they also played. Photos on the wall keep a certain score. There's even an old Doelger Brewery advertisement in the dining room.
The Landmark - 626 Eleventh Avenue, at 46th Street - 212-757-8595.
The Landmark is so far on the west side of Manhattan Island that is used to be on the waterfront before 12th Avenue was built on landfill (link to the Landmark Tavern). The Landmark dates from 1868 and looks the part. The bar itself was carved in 1839 from a single mahogany tree; the front door is the original speakeasy door. History at the Landmark is dyed into the wood. Legend accounts at least three ghosts on the premises. One is an Irish girl who arrived starving during the Great Hunger, only to die on the third floor of the Landmark when that floor was designated as a flophouse. Another ghostly presence is attributed to a Confederate soldier who was mortally wounded in a bar fight and died in a bathtub on the second floor. In its speakeasy days the Landmark was frequented by George Raft, the gangster/actor who grew up in New York's Hell's Kitchen. More recently, the Landmark was featured regularly in episodes of "Spin City" (in at least one drinking game related to watching "Spin City" you're supposed to quaff when the Landmark is shown).
McSorley’s Old Ale House - 15 E. Seventh St., New York, N.Y, 212-473-9148.
McSorley's, established 1854, has the claim of being the oldest tavern in New York. The ale (no beer, just ale) has been pouring for 150 years. They just got around to installing a ladies room in 1986. The decrepit wishbones on the chandelier behind the bar (which are surprisingly not out of place in this attic of a saloon) purportedly date from a group of doughboys who had Thanksgiving dinner at McSorely's before going to fight in France during World War I. The thinking was that they'd return to make their wish and the wishbones behind the bar would insure their return. The chandelier and the bones, crusted with 85 years of dust and gunk, remain.
There is sawdust across the plank floor, ancient carvings in the tables and an overall deep-smoke-cured feel to the place that is of another age. True enough, there are historical markers. An 1854 opening date would put McSorley's in business when Abraham Lincoln spoke a few hundred yards away at Cooper Union on February 27, 1860. McSorley's is said to have a chair behind the bar that Lincoln sat in when he visited. JFK was also a presumptive visitor (the President's father's hobnail boots are said to hang in a backroom, a trophy from Joseph P. Kennedy's bootlegging days). There is also a purported pair of Harry Houdini's handcuffs. The poet e.e. cummings documented his visit more scrupulously than other famous patrons by writing "i was sitting in mcsorley's". Irish owned since 1977, McSorley's churns along as ever.
The White Horse Tavern - 567 Hudson Street - 212-243-9260.
The purported last words of the poet Dylan Thomas at the White Horse Tavern in 1953 were: "I've had eighteen straight whiskies, I think that's the record." (Dying words of famous people.) In actuality, Thomas made it back to the Chelsea Hotel and finally expired days later at St. Vincent's Hospital, so it's not unlikely that his last words were considerably less memorable (perhaps the final utterances were complaints about the cut and style of his hospital gown). Nonetheless, Thomas, who frequented the White Horse Tavern when he was in town on poetry-reading tours late in his life, left an enduring mark. Established in 1880, the White Horse is sometimes called the second-oldest bar in New York. It has slick black painted beams and is broken up in to a number of small rooms, like a British pub. In nice weather a hamburger at an outside table along scenic Hudson Street can make for a nice lunch. Drawn to the Dylan Thomas legacy, the White Horse was the place to be for beat poets. Bob Dylan frequented in the early 1960s, followed by others including John Belushi. Belushi's SNL partner, Dan Akroyd, is said to have visited the White Horse at closing time after Belushi's death. He had the doors closed and bought the house a round.