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Defying war, 9/11 and Covid, NY bar keeps ale flowing at 170

The manager of McSorley's Old Ale House says the secret to the New York bar's longevity is simple -- 'keeping the ale flowing and the door open'
The manager of McSorley's Old Ale House says the secret to the New York bar's longevity is simple -- 'keeping the ale flowing and the door open' - Copyright AFP Charly TRIBALLEAU
The manager of McSorley's Old Ale House says the secret to the New York bar's longevity is simple -- 'keeping the ale flowing and the door open' - Copyright AFP Charly TRIBALLEAU
Gregory WALTON

Not much has changed in the 170 years that McSorley’s Old Ale House has been serving customers in Manhattan’s East Village.

The New York establishment’s manager Teresa Maher says the secret is simple — “keeping the ale flowing and the door open.”

“We are a small place, but we are well known,” she said serving a steady stream of either light or dark — a lighter ale, or a darker porter that have been the only alcoholic options since the Irish bar opened its doors. 

“After 170 years a lot of people are checking to see if we are still here.”

The bar, which marked its anniversary at the weekend with cake and singing, was forced to weather the pandemic when New York adopted some of the strictest lockdown rules in the US. 

It built outdoor seating to serve customers alfresco when regulations on bars were finally relaxed.

As many as one in 25 New York City bars, restaurants and entertainment businesses were lost because of the pandemic, according to a 2022 report.

McSorley’s has been spared the rent hikes that have stretched many New York bars and clubs, like Lucy’s, an East Village mainstay that recently shuttered, reportedly after a developer bought its lease.

“We own the building which buys us a little more time. And we consistently stick to our motto ‘Be Good or Be Gone,'” says Maher, with the words carved into dark wood behind the bar.

Until 1970 however the motto was “Good Ale, Raw Onions and No Ladies,” with the bar excluding women until then — even after it was inherited in 1939 by the daughter of the former policeman who bought it almost immediately after retiring in 1936. His handcuffs are still fixed to the rail that runs beneath the bar.

To this day the bar eschews music, except on its anniversary, with just low conversation, the clink of glasses and the occasional shout of “three dark, two light” as a soundtrack. 

Each beer order is split between two half-pint glass mugs, poured from pristine brass tanks.

McSorley’s wooden floors are strewn with sawdust, and chalkboards list its simple culinary offerings — with liverwurst and notoriously peppery mustard among the favorites.

– Loyal regulars, curious visitors –

The bar’s regulars keep coming back, and curious tourists and passersby flow through the worn saloon doors.

As it vies for the title of oldest bar in Manhattan, McSorley’s longest-standing customer is retired firefighter Mike Rousso, 93, whose helmet emblazoned with the number six hangs on the wall.

The bar’s ties to the fire service, police and military are prominently displayed.

Peaked caps, shoulder patches, handcuffs and rank insignia adorn the walls.

Above the bar a line of dusty wishbones hang on a light fitting, put there by troops of New York’s 69th Infantry Regiment who were served turkey dinners in 1917 before they deployed to Europe to fight in World War I. 

The bar also marks the September 11, 2001 terror attacks carried out by Al-Qaeda, which flew planes into the World Trade Center skyscrapers which were just two miles (three kilometers) away.

“This place is crazy for the 9/11 anniversary,” said one of the “steadies” Phil Lavigne, a retired policeman.

Soldiers of the “Fighting Sixty-Ninth” were among the first responders at Ground Zero.

The bar’s logbooks tell the colorful story of McSorley’s, formerly known as The Old House at Home, with entries from Cassius Clay — as boxer Muhammad Ali was called when he visited — and comic actor Jackie Gleason asking in a scrawl “where are all the dames.”

As for the future, Maher’s son Sebastian, 19, is learning the ropes, helping keep the lunchtime crowd fed and watered on a recent Thursday.

“Of course I want to run it one day. I watch my mom and how she does things — I wanna be just like her,” said Sebastian, proudly showing off a photo of him behind the bar when he was just nine.

Written By

With 2,400 staff representing 100 different nationalities, AFP covers the world as a leading global news agency. AFP provides fast, comprehensive and verified coverage of the issues affecting our daily lives.

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