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
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
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
Drinking with the fishes
New York is thick with mob lore, and many a nightspot like Sparks or Umberto’s is remembered not for the raves but for the rubouts. Not all can boast a hit, but here are a few places ripe with history and their share of colorful characters. Lansky Lounge & Grill (104 Norfolk Street, 212-677-9489), a former speakeasy named after the infamous Jewish gangster and regular patron Meyer Lansky, has one of the hardest-to-find entrances around. Follow the neon “L” at the address listed and go downstairs through the alley and then upstairs through the unlabeled glass door. Inside, 1930s retro decor (swinging doors and private booths) in a 200-seat room accommodates hipsters who’d rather drink cocktails like the Virginia Hill (“a sassy bitch,” $10) than down black and tans, Meyer Lansky’s beverage of choice.
In Little Italy, Da Nico (164 Mulberry Street, 212.343.1212) is not only a favorite haunt of ex-mayor Rudy but a regular mobster hangout, according to witnesses at Bonanno family boss Joseph Massino’s recent trial for racketeering, extortion, and money laundering. A stakeout of the joint reveals lots of tourists sitting outside under huge red umbrellas advertising Campari. Inside, the tightly packed room boasting a bar and exposed brick walls feels more upscale. Great sautéed artichokes ($9.75) and a tasty soft-shell-crab special ($20.75) almost make you forgive the mediocre vodka Collins ($7) and the bland glass of pinot grigio ($6.50).
Stop for a nightcap at Mulberry Street Bar (176 1/2 Mulberry Street, 212-226-9345; formerly Mare Chiaro), a fixture on the NYC Mafia Tour, and recognizable to many as a typical broken-nose spot. It’s been used as a location in films like Donnie Brasco, The Pope of Greenwich Village, and The Godfather: Part III. Basically it’s a dive bar covered with posters of Sinatra, the Yankees, and The Sopranos that hosts a mixed group of regulars, old and young, mingling with out-of-towners while sipping Stoli Vanilla screwdrivers ($7) or Cointreau ($7), downing brews ($4 to $6), and singing karaoke. Just for fun, check out all the bathrooms—maybe you’ll find a gun taped behind the toilet. Salute. ANDREW ABER
One of the things that makes this such a great city is the vibrant cultural mix provided by immigrants, and that’s a milieu that extends to the drinking establishments as well. At Tres Aztecas (66 Rivington Street, 212-254-4223), Mexican laborers who find themselves downtown know they can always drop in to hear some Los Tigres del Norte or Luis Miguel on the jukebox or down an ice-cold Pacífico or Tecate ($3 each). A mural commemorates various pivotal dates in Mexican history, and for those choosing not to imbibe, perfectly acceptable fruit batidas go for $3 each.
At Brooklyn’s relative newcomer Kombit (279 Flatbush Avenue, 718-399-2000), Haitians longing for a taste of home can sit back and enjoy a $5 Guinness as good as they make in the brewery back in Port-au-Prince (and the only “local” choice, as the island’s native Prestige beer hasn’t made it widely to these shores yet) or sip a cinq étoiles Barbancourt Haitian rum, the best rum in the world for my money, for $8 a glass. Haitian compas filtering over the sound system (the legendary Coupé Cloué was playing on a recent evening) adds nicely to the ambience.
Further south in the borough, on a strip of Fifth Avenue that hasn’t yet been consigned to lounge purgatory, the Polish-Czech Smolen Bar (708 Fifth Avenue, no phone) serves hearty Eastern European favorites like Czech Gold Pheasant by the bottle and strong mugs of Poland’s own Okocim brand from the tap, all for $3. Dark and tattered and friendly, Smolen occupies an advantageous place on a several-block stretch hemmed in by Polish butchers and a great Czech restaurant, Milan’s, directly next door. MICHAEL DEIBERT