The Best Historic Bars in Manhattan

New York doesn’t excel at preserving its relics. In fact, it often rushes to demolish and pave over them as soon as city permits will allow. In this fast-paced metropolis that champions the new, the shiny and the young, architectural and cultural artifacts (unless housed in a museum) are few and far between. But the bars that do remain from another century often feel as if time had been paused inside their dusty little worlds. Bartenders are real bartenders making conversation, slinging cold mugs of beer and taking no guff. Regulars and locals spend hours not moving, except to bring a drink to their lips and, perhaps, mutter about the weather. Tourists peer in for a piece of the old New York exchanging anecdotes about who used to drink here. And all the while, outside these bars’ doors, New York keeps right on a’changing. —Robert Simonson

  • 1

    Bemelmans

    Guests come for the Madeline murals, but stay for the generous Martinis and live piano. The essence of Upper East Side gentility, Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle is also the last public space to display the mural work of Ludwig Bemelmans, creator of the iconic children's book character and prolific illustrator of the 1940s and ’50s. Bemelmans completed the commission in exchange for a year's free board at the hotel, and it's easy to see why—the bar's low-slung leather banquettes, golden lighting and gilt-edged details are pure hospitality, and its well-executed classic drinks never go out of style.

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    KNOWN FOR

    • historic
    • hotel bar
    • live music
    • bar food
  • 2

    Ear Inn

    This two-story, Revolutionary-era building has been host to a wide variety of drinking establishments over the centuries, including a speakeasy and an unnamed bar known only as The Green Door. Owing to its near-waterfront location on far-west Spring Street, it has traditionally catered to a more working-class clientele, and retains a low-key, roughhewn charm. Tourists are few and cell phones are frowned upon. The odd name is derived from the intentional obscuring of part of the “B” in the neon “BAR” sign.

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    KNOWN FOR

    • historic bar
    • full menu
    • live music
    • day drinking
  • 3

    Fraunces Tavern

    This lower Manhattan landmark is actually a 1900 facsimile of the much-altered tavern founded by Samuel Fraunces in the 1760s. So you’re not exactly supping where General Washington supped. Still, an air of history hangs about the building, which is quite unlike anything else in the area, and, in terms of beer and whiskey selection, you could do worse.  

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    KNOWN FOR

    • live music
    • full menu
    • lots of whiskey
    • historic
    • craft beer
    • day drinking
  • 4

    Keens

    Keens is the sole cultural leftover from the heady days of the late 1800s when Herald Square was the entertainment center of New York. During its heyday, it was the haunt of actors, politicians, writers and journalists, many who joined the “Pipe Club,” an homage to the tradition of clay European pipe smoking. The pipes of celebrity provenance—which includes Teddy Roosevelt and Einstein—now line the ceilings. Better known as a restaurant, where the mutton chop reigns ever supreme, Keens' ancient bar is nonetheless an attraction in itself. Underneath a large oil painting of a reclining female nude sit more than 200 ...

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    KNOWN FOR

    • full menu
    • lots of whiskey
    • oysters / raw bar
    • day drinking
    • historic
  • 5

    King Cole Bar

    This bar, deep inside the St. Regis on Fifth Avenue, is one of the few New York hotel bars whose standards didn't go to the dogs after the 1960s. It's also one of the only bars in New York with a connection to an ultra-famous cocktail. In 1934, Paris bartender Fernand Petiot brought his Bloody Mary to the hotel, whose bar renamed it the Red Snapper for propriety's sake. The rest is brunch history. A recent renovation to suit restaurateur John DeLucie was unfortunate. So just keep your eyes on the magnificent Maxfield Parrish mural that give the bar its name. It was created in 1906 and once hung in the Astor Hotel bar ...

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    KNOWN FOR

    • hotel bar
    • historic
    • day drinking
  • 6

    Landmark Tavern

    A Hudson River waterfront bar from back when 11th Avenue was the waterfront, the Landmark looks a lot more polished and pretty than it did during the 1860s, owing to a 2004 renovation. Still, the fixtures, floor, walls and handsome wooden bar are largely original. The genteel menu of French wines and spring rolls, however, would be unrecognizable to the sailors and cattlemen that once frequented the place.

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    KNOWN FOR

    • full menu
    • historic
    • day drinking
  • 7

    McSorley's Old Ale House

    Mc Sorley's is arguably New York’s most famous bar, and certainly its most celebrated. Rooted on E. 7th Street since before the Civil War, Lincoln visited it, John Sloan painted it, E.E. Cummings versified it and Joseph Mitchell chronicled it. Every square inch of the sawdust-strewn, sepia-toned, two-room saloon is a caked with old photos, yellowing newsprint and the knick-knacks of history. The liquid bill of fare, served by jacketed men, is limited to ale, dark or light. According to the long-standing, oddball mode of business, one tariff gets you two mugfuls. Weekends get crowded, but on peaceful weekday mornings, ...

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    KNOWN FOR

    • historic
    • bar food
    • day drinking
  • 8

    Old Town Bar

    Founded in the 1890s as a German drinking hall and currently under Irish ownership, the Old Town is nonetheless the most democratic of Gotham’s ancient taverns. Patrons range from twenty- to eightysomethings, bohemian to businessman, locals to out-of-towners. The space is old-world grandeur itself, with 17-foot-high tin ceilings (stained tobacco-brown), a row of roomy booths opposite the bar, touches of stained glass, a working dumb waiter and, in the men’s room, majestic, century-old Hinsdale urinals. Conversation is unusually lively and the food hearty and satisfying.

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    KNOWN FOR

    • historic
    • full menu
    • day drinking
  • 9

    Peter McManus Cafe

    Perhaps because it’s not as bewhiskered as the other bars on this list (founded only in 1936!), the Chelsea bar doesn’t get as much attention as some. But it’s a sturdy, dependable establishment with all the trappings of a bar from another time (including a pair of wooden phone booths), as well as the oldest bar in New York still run by the same family.

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    KNOWN FOR

    • day drinking
    • historic
    • full menu
  • 10

    Pete's Tavern

    This Irving Place tavern vies with McSorley’s for the title of New York’s oldest continually operating bar. While McSorley’s easily beats it in terms of character, Pete’s has considerable charm. It trades heavily on its connection to the writer O. Henry, who supposedly scribbled out “The Gift of the Magi” in the front booth (when it was called Healey's Tavern), which happens to be the best seat in the house. But good luck scoring it.

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    KNOWN FOR

    • historic
    • full menu
    • day drinking
    • outdoor / patio
  • 11

    P.J. Clarke's

    A squat, two-story building nestled among east Midtown’s glass towers, Clarke’s is a holdover from the days when this part of Third Avenue was known for slaughterhouses and the rumbling elevated subway. There are other P.J. Clarke’s around town (the bar became a chain in the early 2000s) but this is the original. As grand in décor and as old in pedigree as Old Town Bar and Pete’s Tavern, it has a distinctly better-heeled clientele. This is where tailored Wall Street arms go to bend, and neighborhood regulars come for oysters and crab legs. There are spacious halls out back where you can fill up on fairly nondescript ...

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    KNOWN FOR

    • oysters / raw bar
    • full menu
    • day drinking
    • historic
  • 12

    White Horse Tavern

    The last bastion of plain, blue-collar drinking in the posh West Village, the White Horse—named after a once-popular brand of Scotch—has lived many lives over its 130-plus years. It has been home to longshoreman, radicals and folk singers at various points of the 20th century. But it gained its lasting reputation during the '50s and ’60 as the watering hole of earnest poets, journalists and novelists, most famously Dylan Thomas, who drained his last glass here.

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    KNOWN FOR

    • historic
    • full menu
    • day drinking

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