The White Horse Tavern as it looks today
Stay in one place long enough, many bars have found, and you’re likely to eventually develop literary cachet. Indeed, many of the city’s most venerable taverns – Old Town, McSorley’s, and the currently-defunct Chumley’s – are or were lined with the dust jacket covers of authors who drank there. Once upon a time authors went regularly to these places to drink themselves silly – nowadays, they’re more likely to go for the Wi-Fi. Here are some of FiTR’s fave literary hangs.
You too can sit in the booth where Dylan Thomas once sat, and maybe Bob Dylan as well.
Welch poet Dylan Thomas lived in the Chelsea Hotel late in 1953 and traipsed back and forth from there to the White Horse Tavern, an ancient bar on Hudson Street in the West Village that dates to 1880, when the neighborhood was mainly Irish, and cargo ships docked on the nearby piers. He was already sick from lung disease and the smog levels were high when he arrived in New York to supervise a stage production of Under Milkwood, and repeated drinking bouts at the White Horse didn’t help. A room at the tavern was dedicated to him in 1986, and the sign hangs over the table that was supposedly his favorite.
Meahwhile, the White Horse became the darling of other literary sets. Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, James Baldwin, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, John Ashbery, and Hunter S. Thompson are other figures associated with the premises at one time or other.
White Horse Tavern
567 Hudson Street
Pete’s Tavern, on Irving Place just south of Gramercy Park
Within spitting distance of Washington Irving’s red-brick house (now home to a not-bad sushi bar), Pete’s Tavern lays claim to being the oldest continuously operating tavern in the city, founded in 1864. Of course, that doesn’t mean operated by the same family, and during the stretch in the first decade of the 20th century, when it was owned by the Healy brothers and known as Healy’s, the place was the regular refuge of O. Henry (the pen name of William Sydney Porter), just like it says today on the awning.
Formerly of Austin, Texas, where he was famously accused by the bank he worked in of embezzlement, O. Henry became one of the premiere short story writers of the day, and he supposedly wrote “Gift of the Magi” in a booth at Pete’s in 1905 – or so it says on the booth. Decades later, Ludwig Bemelmans wrote the first Madeleine book at Pete’s. A slender complement of celebrity authors, you may be thinking, but keep in mind those two authors are supposed to have actually written things there, rather than just gotten drunk.
The bar is worth visiting on its own, with its original pressed-tin ceiling, carved rosewood bar with gold medallions, and giant dark-wood booths that look like caves. Bring your laptop in case you feel like writing something.
129 East 18th Street
The arched door on the building to the left is the main entrance to Chumley’s.
Chumley’s began life as a speakeasy in 1922, features of which make it one of the best examples remaining in the city: no signage, escape route through a courtyard in back that empties onto Barrow Street, a peephole inside the front entrance that allowed the proprietors to eyeball you before entering.
According to a plaque near the front door, which opens into a pair of subterranean rooms plastered with book covers, Chumley’s was the refuge of such literary figures as Willa Cather, William Faulkner, Eugene O’Neill, Orson Welles, John Steinbeck, and Edna St. Vincent Millay, who lived just down Bedford Street in what is known as New York’s narrowest house, at just 9.5 feet. See if you can spot it.
Chumley’s is located at 86 Bedford, and the house number is apparently where the term “86’ed” came from, meaning to be forcibly ejected from a bar.
Unfortunately, Chumley’s chimney collapsed in 2007, and the place has been closed ever since, with occasional reports of its imminent reopening. We can’t wait.
86 Bedford Street
This is where you slip out the back onto Barrow Street.
The ground-floor barroom was once frequented by Tammany Hall types.
Located just north of Union Square on 18th Street east of Broadway, Old Town Bar dates to 1892, when it was founded as a bar and restaurant called Viemeister’s, part of a strong German presence in the neighborhood. During prohibition, it was a speakeasy called Craig’s Restaurant. In 1933, it was purchased by Claus Lohden, who conferred the modern name.
During the early 20th Century, the bar had a reputation as a gathering place for Tammany Hall politicians, and it wasn’t until much later in the century that it acquired its literary reputation, becoming famous for patrons such as Frank McCourt, Nick Hornby, and Billy Collins.
The photogenic place – with its wooden booths, parquet floors, high ceilings, and antique fixtures (the 100-year-old walk-in porcelain urinals have been justifiably celebrated), the place is so photogenic that it provided an introductory sequence to David Letterman’s show in the 1990s, and, known as Riff’s, was featured in the sitcom Mad About You. It also served as backdrop for a famous Madonna video.
Old Town Bar
45 East 18th Street
At the corner of Macdougal Street and Minetta Lane, the long-running Minetta Tavern
Though now it’s a chi-chi restaurant with great food under the ownership of Keith McNally, Minetta Tavern was once a bar and Italian restaurant, founded in 1937 by Eddie “Minetta” Sieveri, and later run by Taka Becovic, a Montenegrin immigrant who had long been a busboy there.
The interior has been largely preserved, with it’s black-and-white checkerboard floor, tin ceiling, backless wooden barstools, red Naugahyde booths, and hanging café chandeliers with lampshades. The place (and surrounding streets) is named after a brook that once ran through the neighborhood.
Famous literary patrons include Ernest Hemingway, e.e. cummings, Ezra Pound, Joe Gould, Eugene O’Neill, William Saroyan, and Dylan Thomas – the last two of whom were clearly two-timing the bar with other taverns. More recently, actors Matthew Broderick and Mathew McConaughey were enthusiastic patrons, prior to the McNally era.
As chronicled by Joseph Mitchell in Joe Gould’s Secret, and featured in a film starring Stanley Tucci, crazy guy Joe Gould (a/k/a Professor Seagull) supposedly wrote much of his Oral History of Our Time while sitting in a booth at Minetta Tavern. Sadly, the blog Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York reports that the portrait of Gould that once graced the bar has been removed during its most recent incarnation. Gould, who had no need for apartments, was also famous for sleeping on a park bench in nearby Washington Square.
113 Macdougal Street