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In 1892, long before the mass production of automobiles and 39 years before the completion of the Empire State Building, the German bar Viemeisters opened at 45 East 18th Street. 122 years later, it remains standing, now known as Old Town Bar (45 East 18th Street, 212-529-6732).
Walk through the door in the early evening, and the hum of Roy Orbison singing “where the folks are fine and the world is mine” may be coming softly through the speakers. The space fills with a separated crowd of young and old Wall Streeters, 20-something advertising kids, publishing house women in fancy shoes, and what look to be part-time authors. The bar is always busy, and people are always talking to one another. “Old Town is a conversation bar,” says second-generation owner Gerard Meagher.
Famed author Frank McCourt once echoed this when he said, “It’s a place to talk.” And still today, it’s both a place to talk freely and for literary intellectuals to meet. Every time I visit, it seems another Princeton Class of 1972 reunion is telling their latest Guy Talese stories or discussing their favorite Studs Terkel book.
Meagher runs the place with his two brothers and sisters, and the bar has been in the family since their father Larry, who’d run bars in Clinton Hill and Greenpoint, took it over in the 1960s. Strictly a bar for decades, the watering hole was forced to change its name during Prohibition, when it adopted the moniker Craig’s Restaurant, started serving food, and became a Roaring Twenties speak easy. “You would stow your drinks under the bottom of the [still original] booths,” says Meagher. “But usually, [the cops] were keyed in to that sort of stuff.” Following Prohibition — and the closure of the 18th street trolley and subway station — the bar fell into disrepair. Larry stepped in, preserving the 19th century 50-plus-foot wooden bar that remains in the space today. You’ll find high tin ceilings, large original mirrors, and antique cash registers, too.
“It’s easy to have a 1890’s moment at Old Town without realizing it,” says Jennifer Berg, professor of food studies at New York University. “It has that gorgeous musty smell. It’s like New York’s own little secret.”
For all its history, though, you won’t necessarily feel like you’re drinking at one of the oldest bars in the country when you drink at Old Town. It doesn’t seem old or dated, and it’s not trying to hold onto its past. It is classic in the same way that the Yankees or Grand Central Station or Prospect Park are classic. Its vitality defines it as a place to drink and converse and debate. As when it opened, it’s still mostly a beer bar, with both guys and girls sticking to one of four drafts. There’s also a no-cellphone policy at the bar, and patrons abide by it.
You might, however, recognize the bar from the opening montage of The David Letterman Show, circa 1982 to 1993. “It’s not precious, it’s original,” says Berg.
Old Town anchors a three-story building, and the second floor is home to a bar-less dining room and kitchen; the top floor holds offices and a vacant apartment that Larry Meagher called home for years. Lining the walls throughout are relics of yesteryear, like a program for a 1930 NYU football game and political handbills from the 1920s. The chandeliers hanging above, now outfitted with watt bulbs, were converted from gas years ago. The tile is original, and the most of the bartenders have been there forever. One of these bartenders is John Nugent, tall, strong-jawed, and a fan of Lou Reed and soul classics. He’s ben at Old Town for more than 20 years, and he can tell you more about New York — both its history and feelings — than any guidebook or PBS documentary. He remembers faces and drink orders, and he asks about the guests you brought in last time.
He and his cohorts proudly serve the masses Stellas and burgers, which are cooked in the kitchen upstairs and sent down by pulley via dumbwaiter. Similar in style to those burgers uptown at JG Melon’s — just large enough and plainly dressed — these are some of the best burgers served at any bar, or restaurant, in town.
In 2010, Old Town celebrated the 100-year anniversary of one of the most famous parts of the bar: its urinals. Built in 1910, the gargantuan urinals, built by Hinsdale, were celebrated with not only a party, but Champagne toasts, too.