Take It Inside

Hitting the bottle or taking on a full plate? These safe havens will help you survive the fall.

It will be a cold winter by the thermometer, a howling one by the anemometer, dim and onyx gray if the heliometer's to be trusted. And longer and colder still by looks of the polls. Only booze, grub, nostalgia, and sex save sanity, so as leaves fall along with collective hope, we keep in mind our old New Yorks of subterranean dives, where we might smoke, bars that have outlasted other wars (though not "nucular"), a time when the Family didn't mean the Bushes, and "the immigrant experience" wasn't a euphemism for cramped cells/interrogation/deportation. DARREN REIDY

Exploring the lower depths

Ash Wednesday, Thursday, Friday . . .
photo: Shiho Fukada
Ash Wednesday, Thursday, Friday . . .

Allegedly the phrase "dive bar" was coined in the 1800s to refer to watering holes that were below street level, hidden from the teetotalers and churchgoers above. Before Times Square went from seeking porno to Finding Nemo, dingy, inexpensive taverns full of working-class stiffs and midnight cowboys were easy to find. Luckily, a few still exist.

It seems disrespectful to call Jimmy's Corner (140 West 44th Street, 212-221-9510), right off McDisney Square, a dive. There's something so old New York and wholesome about the place—it's a bar/shrine to the sport of boxing, nearly every square inch of tabletop and wall space covered with a photo or poster of a boxer. But the cheap drinks ($3 bottles of Bud, $3.50 well drinks), four TVs, jazz-crooner jukebox, and humble decor (mismatched wooden furniture) would surely qualify.

Diving deeper into New York's past is Smith's Bar & Restaurant (701 Eighth Avenue, 212-246-3268), a true relic of a bygone era. No frills. No bullshit. The Irish bartenders give you great service—sass included. The waft of corned beef ($7.50; served with boiled potatoes and cabbage) is what first hits you as you walk across the scruffy linoleum floors, en route to the long wooden old-timey shamrock-lit bar. Tarnished brass piping ropes off a small dining area for the steam table's deli fixin's, and inexpensive spirits ($4 Samuel Adams, $3.50 pints of Bud, $3.50 well) keep the old men and theatergoers anchored.

Just down the way from the Square's last string of peep shops is Bellevue Bar (538 Ninth Avenue, 212-760-0660). Technically more of a hard rock, young-person's hang, this swan dive truly is an ugly duckling. It's so cozy in a teenagerly drinking-in-the-rec-room-with-the-lights-off-and-Christmas-lights-on sort of way, you can rock out to Kiss while sippin' $3.50 well drinks and $3.50 bottles of Bud. Kudos for the spray-painted wall announcement: "Renovating, be patient . . . " In the endangered land of the dive, patience is a virtue. DAVID SHAWN BOSLER

Smoke signals

Five hundred and twenty-six days ago they kicked our butts to the curb, and we're without a case. The anti-smoking laws are draconian for sure, but it doesn't help when the government of a determinedly puffing populace like Ireland follows suit. Now here comes Britain. Apparently, wrongheadedness, unlike nicotine addiction, is contagious. Yeah, smoke's hard to wash out of your hair, breath-defying, bad for you, but the real pleasures in life are usually our poisons, and romance in the world hasn't a little to do with provocations/invitations of fate. Smoke on, even legally. What some hookahs'll do: Besides enhancing the perpetual night-sultan's lair ambience of Karma Lounge (51 First Avenue, 212-677-3160) they get around the ban. The low-slung sofas, curtains (crimson and black), and prelapsarian-pretty art are far from ye olde pub culture, but if displacement is our reward and badge, we learn to embrace it.

The "Bar and Books" angle is a strange one, engendering some kind of idea of "sophisticated" that usually manifests itself in $10 beers and $20 cigars, and a coordinate air of pretension—the social-club library, the Trillings' study. Hudson Bar and Books (636 Hudson Street, 212-229-2642), however, does it right, offering no more than the appearance of class apropos to high literary-politico dispersions, and that's enough. A classically tiled floor, reading-lamp counterfeits on deep cherry-wood-paneled walls, a copper-topped bar tended by amiable well-dressed men and women, Funk and Wagnall's on the shelves, and a fake fire make a surprisingly ingratiating, intimate experience. Not cheap at $7 a beer, but (despite the available cigars) it's mostly a cigarette crowd, good people—good citizens—who haven't forgotten that a whiskey in one hand leaves the other hand free. DARREN REIDY

Everything old is new again

Times of war usually send people reaching for the bottle. And those wishing to relate to America's political past while imbibing their favorite poison can get a sense of history at the Old Town Bar (45 East 18th Street, 212-529-6732). Opened in 1892, the no-frills, two-floor pub has changed little from the days of the Spanish-American War—it still has 16-foot tin ceilings, wood throughout, and the oldest dumbwaiter (a/k/a conveyor lift) around. Order one of four drafts like their Old Town Seasonal, a subtly sweet amber beer ($5), or a bottle of Grolsch, a Dutch premium lager ($6), along with standard pub fare (mozzarella sticks, $6; plain burger $7.50), and take in the atmosphere at this onetime speakeasy that now serves a casual clientele arriving in droves at night.

On the fancier side, the Bridge Café (279 Water Street, 212-227-3344) is "the oldest drinking establishment in the city," according to proprietors. The former brothel, which became a saloon in 1794, has survived pivotal moments in history (e.g., the Civil War, World War II, and 9-11). Located below the Brooklyn Bridge, the '20s-style restaurant and bar serves an enticing array of eats (mango-glazed grilled short ribs, $24; seafood mixed grill with lobster mashed potatoes, $25), 100 wines, almost as many Scotches, six beers on tap, and plenty of well and top-shelf spirits. A smoky-flavored Basil Hayden bourbon ($3.25 for a taste, $8 for a glass) is great for reducing tensions, and the less traditional can opt for a refreshing Absolut pineapple martini ($10). With a homey, local vibe, this is the perfect place to drown your election-season woes. KEISHA FRANKLIN

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