Situated on Spring Street in west SoHo, The Ear Inn (326 Spring Street, 212-431-9750) would be a rare gem in any city: It’s a reliable bar with interesting people, good food, and a comfortable, welcoming atmosphere. Oh yeah, and it’s also one of the oldest drinking establishments in the city, but that’s not the only reason why you should pay a visit.
“We’re not a sports bar, we are a conversation bar,” says Martin Sheridan, owner of the Ear since 1979. A native of Ireland, Sheridan took over the place after a successful career as a roadie, hauling musical equipment on and off stages and trucks all over the world. His NYC living and rehearsal loft was only a short distance away, and he was more than a regular. “It was really the only place around here to get a drink, ” he says. “If you saw someone walking along these streets at night in those days, you knew they were coming here.”
Built in 1817, the house was originally the home of George Washington confidant James Brown. In the early days, the space was a tobacco store, and the building at 326 Spring was also home to a brothel upstairs; throughout much of the 1800s and early 1900s, it served as a bar for longshoremen coming from the ships along the Hudson River, then only feet away from the bar. “They were working on the building next door and found wooden pilings from the piers,” says Sheridan. Even today, a true sailor or boatman would not seem out-of-place. The old bar has not changed with the times — and that’s a good thing.
Shortly after being listed to the historic registry in 1977, the bar that been known as the “Green Door” was formally named “The Ear Inn” in order to circumvent laws prohibiting changing the exterior of the landmark building: The sign outside once read “Bar,” so it took just a few painted lines to make it spell “Ear.”
Originally handmade from local lumber, the building’s structure has gone through five major renovations during Sheridan’s time, and some $200,000 worth of damage occurred during Hurricane Sandy. While digging below the space during a recent renovation, archeologists found hundreds of artifacts — from old plates to a large collection of glass bottles, which now hang above the bar — some of which are now on view at the Historical Society of New York on the Upper West Side.
Today, the place retains its old charm with wooden floors; a long, wooden bar (which dates to the late 1800s); and nautical memorabilia. Sit at one of a cluster of wooden tables in either the front and back room or grab a stool at the bar. And there are two small TVs here, but the volume is rarely on, and the place doesn’t get packed with sports fans.
Despite the fact that it’s been around for almost 200 years, The Ear Inn is not much of a tourist spot; it stubbornly remains a reliable place for locals to enjoy themselves. Sheridan believes the Inn rightfully belongs to the people and customers. “Movies and shows always come down here to shoot, and offer us lots of money, but it’s something I’d never be interested in,” he says.
What about the food? The Ear serves food that is several large leaps above pub food — it’s tasty and consistent and, for NYC, fairly priced. Consider a burger, handmade daily and served with potatoes and salad for $8.95. The mussels, served in a white wine garlic sauce, were fresh and super plump on my last visit; they pair well with the specially made Ear Inn Ale by Brooklyn Brewery, styled after the contents of an old beer bottle discovered during the excavation.
Sheridan has begun to bring his own organic produce to the Ear, too, and he hopes his farm will supply almost all of the bar’s produce in a few years. “The farming,” he says with a pause. “It’s a learning process.”
Sheridan takes the preservation of The Ear seriously, and plans to preserve the legacy by eventually handing it off to a family member like his nephew Gary, who can be found most nights behind the bar, serving and managing. “It will stay in the family forever, that’s the deal,” says Sheridan.