10 Literary Bars in Manhattan
Booze and books have a natural affinity: both look great on a wooden shelf, both are designed to be consumed, and, for better or worse, writers have tended to gravitate toward certain booze dens through the years. Here are 10 of New York City’s best bars with a literary past and present, ranging from dive bars to darkened Bohemian writers’ dens to some where only bestselling authors could afford more than a drink, presented with the help of Lonely Planet and its U.S. digital editor Andy Murdock.
Blue Bar at the Algonquin (Midtown)
In the 1920s, the Algonquin Hotel was the meeting place of the Algonquin Round Table. The regulars met almost daily at the bar and included the likes of Dorothy Parker, George S. Kauffman, Robert Benchley, Heywood Broun and New Yorker magazine founder Harold Ross. The Blue Bar recently underwent extensive renovations and is once again open to the public, beckoning thirsty literary historians in for a tipple.
Old Town Bar (Flatiron)
Old Town Bar lives up to its name. In fact, it’s old enough to have celebrated the 100th anniversary of the urinals in the men’s bathroom in 2010, and how many New York bars can say that? But unlike some of the others on this list, Old Town Bar boasts a modern list of literary heavies as its customersm including Frank McCourt, Seamus Heaney, Nick Hornby and Billy Collins. Madonna fans might remember her relishing a cigarette in her Bad Girlvideo (1992) lit by a helpful Old Town Bar barkeep (also featuring Christopher Walken in his second best scene involving a pocket watch).
Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle Hotel(Upper East Side)
Named after the author and illustrator of the Madeline children’s books, this bar features Ludwig Bemelmans’s only publicly displayed art, the mural Central Park, which rings the Art Deco cocktail lounge. Look for Woody Allen, who brings his jazz band to the Carlyle on occasion.
Oak Bar at the Plaza Hotel (Midtown)
At the Plaza, you can relive the Thompson & Knight Eloise stories. And for a more adult experience, scoot into the hotel’s classic Oak Bar at the Oak Room, a favorite of F. Scott Fitzgerald (a scene from The Great Gatsby is set in the hotel’s Palm Court). Fun fun fun, but pricey pricey pricey.
White Horse Tavern (West Village)
Famed as the bar where Dylan Thomas drank right before he died, the White Horse Tavern was also patronized by another Dylan (the one named Bob), not to mention Anais Nin, Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson and Jack Kerouac. Kerouac got tossed out of the bar on several occasions, and wrote that he once found “Go home Kerouac” written over the urinals (in some versions of the story it’s “Jack Go Home” or “Go Home Jack.” People still write variations on the wall).
Sardi’s (Theater District)
Known as the restaurant and bar plastered with celebrity caricatures (and occasionally plastered celebrities themselves), Sardi’s also holds some interest for those with a bookish bent. Heywood Broun, of Algonquin Roundtable fame, also was a member of Sardi’s “Cheese Club,” a group of journalists, critics and agents including Walter Winchell, Ward Morehouse and Ring Lardner that met frequently at Sardi’s.
The Half King (Chelsea)
A bar and restaurant owned by writers might sound like a tragic recipe for failure (particularly considering that one of the writers wrote The Perfect Storm), but the Half King steadfastly defies such easy ironies. Owned by Sebastian Junger, Nanette Burstein and Scott Anderson, the Half King has created a successful hybrid between a comfy pub and candlelit writer’s hideaway. Weekly readings feature some of today’s foremost writers.
Chumley’s (West Village)
One of several theories on the origin of the verb “eighty-six”–to throw out, remove, or refuse service to a customer–comes from the back door address of the classic literary watering hole Chumley’s. If the police raided the bar, patrons–perhaps even the famed literary ones including Steinbeck, Faulkner, Hemingway and Fitzgerald–were told to eighty-six it out the garden door. Chumley’s itself was eighty-sixed after the chimney collapsed in 2007, and is still working on reopening, but unfortunately for BEA attendees, that probably won’t happen until later this year.
Kettle of Fish (West Village)
Kettle of Fish has moved several times since it opened in 1950 above the legendary Gaslight Cafe, and it picked up some interesting clientele (Dylan, Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson among others). Today it’s a dive bar, sports bar, gay bar, boho literary bar all in one cozy cellar.
McSorley’s Old Ale House (Lower East Side)
McSorley’s has been serving ale since about 1854, but only began to allow women through the door in 1970. It’s still y-chromosome-heavy (and tourist-heavy)–little has changed through multiple waves of hipness, unhipness, and so-unhip-that-it’s-hip-ness. No matter what you want to order you get two mugs of ale. Notable patrons such as Joseph Mitchell, e.e. cummings and Brendan Behan, not to mention two presidents (Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt), also got two mugs of ale (at the very least, Abe could put it away).