McSorley's Old Ale House 15 E. Seventh St., New York, N.Y, 212-473-9148
McSorley's earned its reputation as America's most famous bar by the 1940s, when Life magazine ran a picture story about a day in the life of the alehouse. Artist John Sloan helped push McSorley's toward celebrity with a series of paintings completed between 1912 and 1930, and whenever there was a public exhibition of Sloan paintings, business boomed in the bar - and more artists came to make more paintings. Joseph Mitchell immortalized the bar in The New Yorker, and his essays were later compiled in the book McSorley's Wonderful Saloon.
First John and then Bill McSorley used to gather the patrons at night and buy the final round before closing. The saloon looks much today as it did 50 years ago in the pages of Life, except the walls are more cluttered with pictures, and those pictures have grown even browner with age. John McSorley founded the bar in 1854, patterning it after a public house in Ireland and calling it the Old House at Home. He changed the name in 1908, after his old signboard blew down. John McSorley, who died in 1910 at the age of 87, put his son, Bill, in charge of the bar about 1890. Bill guided it in the years it became famous, finally selling it in 1936 (he died in 1938).
First John and then Bill McSorley personally opened the bar each morning and closed it at night. It was their custom to gather patrons at closing time and buy the final round. Bill McSorley didn't drink at all; and after imbibing steadily from the time he was 20 until he was 55, John McSorley gave up drink at 55. He remained a trencherman, however, late in life forming a organization of gluttons called the Honorable John McSorley Pickle, Beefsteak, Baseball Nine and Chowder Club.
Many politicians were among the regulars, which is one of the reasons that Bill McSorley paid no attention to Prohibition, not even bothering with a peephole as he continued to serve beer. But John McSorley's eye for memorabilia and pictures of famous people gave the impression that more historical figures passed through the doors than actually did. Still there were plenty who did; for instance, Woody Guthrie sat at a table with regulars shortly before he headed off to the Merchant Marines. In 1969, McSorley's returned to the headlines when NOW attorney Faith Seidenberg filed suit to end the bar's century-old policy against serving women.
McSorley's ale came from a local brewery, and in 1934 Bill McSorley sold the Fidelio Brewery the right to brew and sell McSorley's Cream Stock Ale. Today, the Stroh Brewing Co. makes the McSorley's Ale sold at the bar and throughout the mid-Atlantic states. The beer is not the real reason to visit the bar, and we wouldn't advocate waiting in the long lines that sometimes appear on weekend nights. Then, it's nearly impossible to get a good look at the place. But on a weekday afternoon, McSorley's remains what we think a saloon is supposed to be.
We sat at a table by the front window, ceramic mugs in front of us, not long ago, each reading books. Imagine our surprise when a cat that had been lazing on the other side of the shutters bounded onto the table and then onto the floor, leaving footprints in the sawdust.