Bars don't get much attention from historians.
So identifying the oldest bars in a city with a rich tradition of drinking is no easy task --it's not as if there's a directory of antiquated taverns to inspect.
And even if a bar's lineage goes back to the 1800s, there's still Prohibition to consider. Those years of speakeasies and bootleggers upended the business of many taverns, some of which converted to cafes or ice cream parlors for years. There's often no telling which ones kept selling alcohol on the sly.
Despite all that, we've tried to do our best like drunken detectives on a bar crawl. So, sit back, have a drink with a grain of salt and enjoy this tour of some of the oldest bars in the city.
Manhattan: McSorley’s vs. Bridge Café
In Manhattan, some of the oldest bars have attracted celebrities and writers, and their reputations and vintage have been dully celebrated and researched. Think Pete’s Tavern where O. Henry wrote “The Gift of the Magi” or McSorley’s Old Ale House, immortalized by New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell in 1940.
Mitchell famously declared McSorley’s Old Ale House the oldest saloon in the city, having been established in 1854. And for a long time, that reputation has stood the test of time. But in the mid-1990s, amateur historian Richard McDermott worked to try to prove that another old bar, Bridge Café at the South Street Seaport, actually existed long before.
Here, briefly, is the argument for Bridge Café, according to McDermott (who died on April 7, 2015): The Bridge Café is located at 279 Water St., a building that since 1847 has had an “unbroken record” of serving as a “drinking establishment.”
Bill Wander, the official historian of McSorley’s, disputes the argument. He said that, unlike Bridge Café, McSorley’s operated through Prohibition. The Bridge Café, he argued, did not.
He said a 1928 photograph of the building shows the business listed there as the Peconic Trucking Co. “That photograph has been denied or covered up,” Wander said. So Wander, and other historians, argue that McSorleys is the “oldest continuously operating saloon” in the city. Not the Bridge Café, which is in a building that harbored similar bars but not the same bar. “Just because you have a business similar in those four walls does not make it the same business,” he said.
Today, McSorleys is still serving its own house brand of ale — light or dark — in a cloistered, darkened barroom with sawdust on the wooden floors. Though largely unchanged over the decades, after 115 years of only admitting men, the bar was forced to allow women entrance following a court decision and City Council bill. It then opened a bathroom for them. The Bridge Café, still in its old wooden structure, has been closed since it suffered extensive damage during Hurricane Sandy.
Brooklyn: P.J. Hanley’s Tavern leaves a mystery
In 2013, the bar that had long held the title of oldest in the borough was shut down and its operator evicted.
Formerly known as P.J. Hanley’s Tavern, the bar at 449-451 Court St. in Carroll Gardens could claim a history stretching back to 1874 when it was known under a different name. The watering hole even survived Prohibition as a speakeasy. It didn’t get the Hanley name until the 1950s.
Today, though, it sits empty; its last operator, James McGown, lost a court battle with the landlord and was evicted. By that time, he had changed the name to Goldenrod and rebranded it as an 1890s revival alehouse.
The landlord’s attorney, Donald Bernstein, told amNewYork that he didn’t expect the owners to let the place stay empty. “I’m sure they are looking,” he said.
That leaves Brooklyn with a mystery: Now that P.J. Hanley’s is effectively gone, to which bar goes the crown of oldest in the borough?
Some possibilities could include Sunny's in Red Hook (1934) or Farrell's Bar and Grill (1933).
Another possibility could be the bar at the historic private Montauk Club in Park Slope. A 1939 article in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle claimed the bar was the oldest in the borough, dating back to when the clubhouse’s building was erected in 1889.
Leslie McKinley, the assistant secretary of the club that has about 220 members today, told amNewYork that it may well be the oldest “continual drinking establishment” in Brooklyn. However, she said the actual bar in the building had been moved since it was first built, to the second floor. The club also didn't officially move in until 1891.
She also could not say what happened during Prohibition at the famously pro-alcohol club. But she was sure of one thing: “You know they kept drinking,” she said.
The Bronx: Yankee Tavern
Despite what's printed on its sign -- it says "The Original Since 1923" -- the Yankee Tavern was not established until a few years later. Still, it's long been considered the oldest bar in the Bronx, even by the borough's tourist agency.
According to Joe Bastone, the current owner of the watering hole that has served Yankee fans and players alike for decades, the bar was actually founded in 1927. The bar is at 72 E. 161st Street, a short walk from Yankee Stadium.
Whatever year it was established, the Yankee Tavern has some pedigree that makes it worth a visit: Babe Ruth, Yogi Berra and Lou Gehrig were known to down a cold one among fans. And the most zealous of Yankee fans, the late Freddy Sez, was also said to be a customer.
Bastone does argue that the tavern was a "sports bar before people started saying it was a sports bar." Asked if he could think of an older bar in the Bronx, Bastone said he could not, and lamented that many had disappeared from the borough. "It's really sad so many of them are going by the wayside."
Queens: Neir’s Tavern
The oldest bar in Queens, local historians agree, is Neir's Tavern in Woodhaven.
"For a long time, nobody really knew the age of Neir's Tavern," said Loycent Gordon, the owner who bought the place in 2009 because he saw the bar struggling to survive. "It soldiered on over the years. I didn't want to see a place like this disappear. I just jumped. I saved it from closing down."
Since he didn't know the history of the place that he bought, Gordon hired a historian to figure it out. What they learned could make it the oldest continuously operating bar in the city, dating back to 1829, well before McSorley's opened in 1854. The goal, Gordon says, has been to get Neir's Tavern listed as a national historic landmark.
"We're not looking for glory," he said. "We're just trying to make sure this place stays open."
Richard Hourahan, of the Queens Historical Society, helped with the research into the tavern's origins. He said it first opened as the Blue Pump Room, catering to the elites who went to the nearby Union Course horse-racing course. The founder of the bar was Cadwallader Colden, a noted figure at the time. "It was like a social place," Hourahan said.
In 1835, it became The Old Abbey; in 1898, the Neir family took it over. It had a bowling alley out back, one of the first in the country, with half-size bowling pins, Gordon said. Kids were paid a nickel to set them back up.
During Prohibition, the bar became a speakeasy and even may have produced its own booze, Hourahan said. One old-timer is convinced that the remains of an old still are in the walls. Another bit of lore, widely reported by old customers: Actress Mae West lived down the street and as a teenager would perform in the backroom.
Today's Neir's has been featured in movies like Ben Stiller's "Tower Heist" and "Goodfellas." The tavern serves all-American cuisine, beer and cocktails that were served when the bar first opened in the 1800s.
Staten Island: Liedy’s vs. Killmeyer's
Two bars in Staten Island have long had a friendly competition over which is the oldest bar in the borough: Liedy’s Shore Inn in Snug Harbor and Killmeyer’s Old Bavaria Inn in Charleston.
Here's the truth: Liedy’s is the oldest bar in continuous operation owned by the same family since 1892, but Killmeyer’s was established earlier in 1859 and has always existed at the same location.
Larry Liedy, the current owner of Liedy’s Shore Inn, said his great-great grandfather from Austria, Jacob Liederhaus, established the bar just down the street from where it is currently located. It’s been there since 1905, he said.
The bar is small, just 17 by 44 feet, but Liedy says he packs in crowds for rhythm and blues bands. Beers go for $2 on draught. After the fourth beer, the fifth is on the house. The pay phone has been there since 1942 — and was used during the filming of Madonna's 1980s video “Papa Don’t Preach.”
Also, “it’s haunted,” Liedy said. “I live on top of the bar. I see figures. I see images. I see a ghost looking at me. … I hear, ‘Larry.’”
He said that when the New York Ferris Wheel — what will be the largest observation wheel in the world — is built across the street, he hopes business will boom. “But I’m still going to sell $2 beers!”
Ken Tirado, the owner of Killemeyer’s, said he and Liedy have “milked this competition over who has the oldest bar for all its worth.”
Killemeyer’s was established as the social hub of what was then a largely German-immigrant community. During Prohibition, the bar became a hotel and meeting hall to survive.
In 1959, the place became known as the Century Inn, a popular roadhouse that attracted bands like Twisted Sister. When Tirado purchased it in 1995, he decided to return it to its German roots and restore the Killemeyer name.
Today the tavern has a large beer hall and beer garden, 100 varieties of beer and 25 draft lines. Half of them are dedicated to German imports. It serves up traditional German fare like schnitzels and goulashes.