"Good ale, raw onions, and no ladies”
August 4, 2014 11:54 AM   Subscribe

"When anything had to be changed or repaired, it appeared to pain him physically. For twenty years the bar sagged in the middle like a plough mule’s back. A carpenter warned him repeatedly that it was about to collapse; finally, in 1933, he told the carpenter to go ahead and prop it up. While the work was in progress he sat at a table in the back room with his head in his hands and got so upset he could not eat for several days." A history of McSorley's Old Ale House from the 1940 issue of The New Yorker.
posted by gauche (33 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
Joe Mitchell's Up in the Old Hotel is a treasure for those who liked this piece.
posted by dr_dank at 12:00 PM on August 4, 2014 [8 favorites]

I don't drink anymore, but I never recall thinking, you know, some raw onions would go down real nice with this beer.
posted by thelonius at 12:02 PM on August 4, 2014 [5 favorites]

Ah, McSorley's, where I and a party of classmates stopped by one summer evening and where their motto "Be Good or Be Gone" was promptly enforced when one of our number made it intemperately plain to our server that she couldn't hold her liquor or her tongue.
posted by Doktor Zed at 12:07 PM on August 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

It's a strange thing, and I'd never order it anywhere else, but the onions on liverwurst at McSorley's is its own iconic meal, with its own logic.

In my life, I have spent exactly one afternoon at this bar, about six months ago, and much of the description in this article rings true to my own, admittedly brief, experience of it.
posted by gauche at 12:08 PM on August 4, 2014

Old John had a bull-frog bass and enjoyed harmonizing; with a choir of drunks. His favorite songs were “Muldoon, the Solid Man,” “Swim Out, You’re Over Your Head,” “Maggie Murphy’s Home,” and “Since the Soup House Moved Away.”

For those curious about the songs.
posted by maxsparber at 12:18 PM on August 4, 2014 [8 favorites]

The one time I set foot in McSorley's, I was in the company of about 8 seamen during Fleet Week.

They'd stopped me in a somewhat confusing subway station to ask for directions; they were trying to transfer from one subway to the next. Since they were headed in the general direction I was going anyway, I said they could just follow me to the subway they needed, and they all fell into step around me, 8 guys in spotless dress whites and me. We quickly fell into good-natured ribbing as we walked, so when we boarded the right train and they asked for directions from the proper station, I said "you know what, it's not that bad a walk home for me FROM there, lemme get off with you and lead you right to McSorley's itself."

I swear that that was entirely my intent. I should have expected, though, that 8 naval seamen would have been too chivalrous to let me lead them all the way to McSorley's without inviting me to join them in a round. And that is how I ended up at a table in McSorley's sharing a pitcher of beer with eight hot guys in dress whites during Fleet Week, which somehow still feels like the best New York story ever.

They were perfect gentlemen. One guy was quite taken with me and even offered to walk me all the way back to the Lower East Side, where I lived then, and made a buddy come with us "so you won't be scared I'll try anything."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:19 PM on August 4, 2014 [57 favorites]

Was tricked by a local into asking our waiter when they started letting women in McSorley's. He scowled, yelled "1970 and don't foookin' remind me!", spat on the floor and walked away.
posted by GrapeApiary at 12:27 PM on August 4, 2014 [13 favorites]

“I’ve had my share.”

I'm stealing that.
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:30 PM on August 4, 2014

Nothing like it here in Orlando. ::sigh::
posted by Splunge at 12:32 PM on August 4, 2014

The thing that really struck me about the New Yorker article is how incredibly similar in tone and style it is to everything John Steinbeck ever wrote about Doc Ricketts -- but that it predates Cannery Row by five years. That has me scratching my chin a bit.

(Would totally love to hang out there.)
posted by mudpuppie at 12:32 PM on August 4, 2014

As I always RTFA, I read the whole thing without knowing the date. It was simply joyous!
posted by Anitanola at 12:40 PM on August 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Went there for the first time in 1978. Was a little bit under the drinking age. The waiter asked me how old I was. I said without really thinking, "Old enough to pay for whatever I have." He just looked at me and said in return, "I like your style kid. Whataya having?" It was in that first visit I learned you cannot order just one mug of beer. I am not sure if it was the wait staff or a real policy, but I had to order 2 or 3 at a time. So, with four of us, the waiter would bring 12 mugs of beer and if I recall, a plate of saltines, onions and cheese. Haven't been back since 1986. Loved that place.

(Loved the old time to the floor urinals too. Made the easy in cold beer, easy out too.)
posted by 724A at 12:42 PM on August 4, 2014

Its really cheddar and onions and it works pretty well.

Pretty much a tourist joint as long as I've been aware of it.
posted by JPD at 12:43 PM on August 4, 2014

As a rule, [Bill, the bartender 1890-1936] reserved his kindness for cats. He owned as many as eighteen at once and they had the run of the saloon. He fed them on bull livers put through a sausage grinder and they became enormous. When it came time to feed them, he would leave the bar, no matter how brisk business was, and bang on the bottom of a tin pan; the fat cats would come loping up, like leopards, from all corners of the saloon.

Looks like they've taken some heat from the killjoys at the the Dept of Health lately over the cats, sadly.

Most nights there are a few curiosity-seekers in the place. If they behave themselves and don’t ask too many questions, they are tolerated. The majority of them have learned about the saloon through John Sloan’s paintings. Between 1912 and 1930, Sloan did five paintings, filled with detail, of the saloon—“McSorley’s Bar,” which shows Bill presiding majestically over the tap and which hangs in the Detroit Institute of Arts; “McSorley’s Back Room,” a painting of an old workingman sitting at the window at dusk with his hands in his lap, his pewter mug on the table; “McSorley’s at Home,” which shows a group of argumentative old-timers around the stove; “McSorley’s Cats,” in which Bill is preparing to feed his drove of cats; and “McSorley’s, Saturday Night,” which was painted during prohibition and shows Bill passing out mugs to a crowd of rollicking customers.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:51 PM on August 4, 2014 [5 favorites]

Went there for the first time in 1978. Was a little bit under the drinking age. The waiter asked me how old I was.

When I was about 16, I tried to get served at a local college party. They had students checking IDs and giving wristbands. The guy asked me "How old are you?" I said, 19. "When were you born?" "19 years ago!" He thought that was funny, and gave me a wristband.

stay in school, kids
posted by thelonius at 12:52 PM on August 4, 2014 [8 favorites]

Pretty much a tourist joint as long as I've been aware of it.

I went in there one afternoon ten or twelve years ago and fell in love with the place. Every time I tried to go back it was sardined with East Village Condo Finance Bros. :/
posted by entropone at 1:07 PM on August 4, 2014

Worth going to around lunchtime during the week. Never at night, when there are lines outside and other very good bars on the same block that are much less crowded...
posted by AJaffe at 1:12 PM on August 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

I am not sure if it was the wait staff or a real policy, but I had to order 2 or 3 at a time.

I was there last year, and that's the policy. Their mugs are more like 1/2 pints, so you order two at a time. The place is awesome, I generally don't like schmoozing with strangers but something about it in there makes it just wonderful for chatting up new people. Two guys from somewhere in Europe were digging up a new tunnel into Grand Central. Truly worth the visit.

They have laminated copies of a Tribune article from 1895 testifying that's it's really old as shit. Which is something.
posted by joecacti at 1:14 PM on August 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Anybody see this yet?
posted by Homemade Interossiter at 1:20 PM on August 4, 2014

Joe Mitchell's Up in the Old Hotel is a treasure for those who liked this piece.

Pretty much anything Joseph Mitchell wrote is a treasure.

Looks like they've taken some heat from the killjoys at the the Dept of Health lately over the cats, sadly.

First it was the horses, now the cats. I really do not like this administration, no sir, I do not.
posted by IndigoJones at 1:52 PM on August 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

"Good ale, raw onions, and no ladies”

Which was the style at the time.
posted by Ironmouth at 1:56 PM on August 4, 2014 [4 favorites]

The only change wrought to McSorley's by Prohibition was in ale suppliers. That's a New York that no longer exists.
posted by tommasz at 2:02 PM on August 4, 2014

I loved that place when I was fifteen.
posted by Jim Slade at 2:15 PM on August 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

This seems to be a good place to thank that Mefi person(s) who recommended "Up in the Old Hotel" years ago. And I agree with the reviewer Ironmouth linked to -- the stories in "The Bottom of the Harbor" are simply wonderful:
“Mr. Hunter’s Grave,” a visit with one of the oldest survivors of a nineteenth-century village of Negro oystermen on Staten Island; “Dragger Captain,” the story of an old salt in the fleet out of Stonington, Connecticut, that supplies the Fulton Fish Market with flounder; and “The Rivermen,” which is about the men of Edgewater, New Jersey, just below the George Washington Bridge, who fish the Hudson River for shad.

(The very last piece contains this arresting description: "Sometimes they'd have to jump for hours to get a pole down far enough. Sometimes more weight would be needed and two more men would get up on the crosspiece. The two on the inside would hold on to the pole and the two on the outside would hold on the two on the inside, and they'd jump and grunt and jump and grunt, and it was a strange sight to watch.")
posted by of strange foe at 2:23 PM on August 4, 2014

Homemade Interossiter:
"Anybody see this yet?"
Another graphic novel the place is featured in is the Preacher series when Cassidy reminisces about being a regular there after he first arrives in New York.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 2:26 PM on August 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

The two beer thing definitely makes you feel drunker than you are, since they are tiny beers.

Also, McSorelys is still fun, but my heart belongs to Old town bar forever for its disgusting hotdogs and its amazing huge urinals. Best ancient bar in the city there.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 4:21 PM on August 4, 2014

My Dad took me here for the first time in 1998 or so. I wasn't even of age, but since I was in college, he wanted me to see what it had been like for him when he attended Cooper Union in the 50s. I know of few establishments that can offer such continuity. I do wish they'd buy a fucking credit card machine some time (actually I don't).

One thing I do know: had I grown up before 1970 I'd've been a lonely man at McSorley's. Most of my friends are women.
posted by Captaintripps at 4:41 PM on August 4, 2014

Having been a habitué of the Detroit Institute of Arts for over 40 years, I'm ashamed to say that I have NO recollection of ever seeing the Sloan painting. It's just the kind of work that I find absorbing, wanting to know the story behind it. I hereby resolve to search it out next week when I make my Summer visit, study it closely, and then hit the Old Shillelagh on Monroe Avenue for a leisurely ale.
posted by TDavis at 6:14 PM on August 4, 2014

It's the best place in the world on a weekday afternoon, say 1PM when you're ready for lunch. Bring a book and/or something to write with and plan to stay and you will be transported to a place you will delight in revisiting for the rest of your life.

And read Up in the Old Hotel for
similar effect. It is one of the great works of writing of all time, and full of pleasure.
posted by oneironaut at 10:13 PM on August 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

This place sounds kind of awesome. And I will do my best to help preserve its peculiar charms by never darkening its door with my feminine presence.
posted by egypturnash at 1:33 AM on August 5, 2014

Quite nice for a weekday lunch when it is not a tourist zone.

They also have perhaps more recently (this lifetime) a very powerful Mustard for your cheese and onions or burger.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 5:42 AM on August 5, 2014

I'm sure it is in some sense a tourist joint, at least to the extent that I went there with my friends a couple of weeks ago when we were all in from Colorado for HOPE. I would still rank it as, let's say, somewhere in my top 10 bar experiences ever. Beautiful establishment.
posted by brennen at 10:15 PM on August 5, 2014

dr_dank: "Joe Mitchell's Up in the Old Hotel is a treasure for those who liked this piece."

On the strength of this thread, I bought this yesterday and it's looking to be an absolute treat.

One thing I noticed is that there are a lot of little edits made in the collected Vintage edition I have. Whoever edited the pieces for collection (Mitchell himself?) has removed some little details and added others. For example, Old John's daily walk 'to and from the Battery each morning', becomes just 'a long walk each morning.' Also, pictures of 'assassinated politicians' on the walls becomes a fascinating detail about Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley in particular, and a plaque below their portraits that reads 'THEY KILLED THESE GOOD MEN, THE WICKED DOGS' (paraphrasing, I don't have the book in front of me).

I love noticing little details like this, and I can quite imagine Mitchell going through the drafts with a red pencil in the early Nineties, striking out details and adding new ones. While I regret the loss of some things he removed, I'm glad he added others.
posted by Happy Dave at 1:57 AM on August 14, 2014

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