Booze and books: 10 literary bars of New York City

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Booze and books have a natural affinity: both look great on a wooden shelf, both are designed to be consumed, and, for better or worse, writers have tended to gravitate toward certain booze-dens through the years. Here are ten of New York City’s best bars with a literary past and present, ranging from dive bars to darkened Bohemian writers’ dens to some where only bestselling authors could afford more than a drink.

Blue Bar - The Algonquin (Midtown)

Through the 1920s, Midtown Manhattan’s historic Algonquin Hotel was the meeting place of a group of well-known local writers, journalists and actors calling themselves the 'Algonquin Round Table'. The regulars met almost daily at the bar – this included the likes of Dorothy Parker, George S. Kauffman, Robert Benchley, Heywood Broun and The New Yorker magazine founder Harold Ross. The Blue Bar underwent extensive renovations in 2012 and is once again open to the public, beckoning thirsty literary historians in for a tipple.

The Algonquin Hotel - A Piece of HistoryCocktail at the Algonquin's Blue Bar. Photo by Jazz Guy.

Old Town Bar (Flatiron)

Old Town Bar lives up to its name – in fact it’s old enough to have celebrated the 100 year anniversary of the urinals in the men’s bathroom in 2010, and how many New York bars can say that? But unlike some of the others on this list, Old Town Bar boasts a modern list of literary heavies as its customers including Frank McCourt, Seamus Heaney, Nick Hornby and Billy Collins. Madonna fans might remember her relishing a cigarette in her Bad Girl video (1992) lit by a helpful Old Town Bar barkeep (also featuring Christopher Walken in his second best scene involving a pocket watch).

Broke-Ass StuartAdd another writer to the list: we spotted Lonely Planet author Stuart Schuffman soaking up the history in the Old Town Bar. Photo by Nicki Ishmael.

Bemelmans Bar – Carlyle Hotel (Upper East Side)

Named after the author and illustrator of the classic Madeline children’s books, Bemelmans Bar features Ludwig Bemelmans’ only publicly displayed art, the mural Central Park which rings the Art Deco cocktail lounge. Kids can enjoy this one as well – put on your wide-brimmed hat and bring the whole family for a Madeline-themed tea service and brunch with entertainment (Saturdays, resuming in October 2012). Also look for Woody Allen who brings his jazz band to the Carlyle on occasion.

Carlyle HotelMadeline brunch in Bemelmans Bar. Photo by Benjamin Haas.

Oak Bar – Plaza Hotel (Midtown)

Since we’re talking children’s lit, let’s skibble over to the Plaza Hotel to relive the Thompson & Knight Eloise stories and slomp around a bit. When ready for a more adult experience, scoot into the hotel’s classic Oak Bar at the Oak Room, a favorite of F. Scott Fitzgerald (a scene from The Great Gatsby is set in the hotel’s Palm Court). Fun fun fun, but pricey pricey pricey, so don’t get too sklonked.

White Horse Tavern (West Village)

Famed as the bar where Dylan Thomas drank right before he died, the White Horse Tavern was also patronized by another Dylan (the one named Bob), not to mention Anais Nin, Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson, and Jack Kerouac. Kerouac got tossed out of the bar on several occasions, and wrote that he once found 'Go home Kerouac' written over the urinals (in some versions of the story it’s 'Jack Go Home' or 'Go Home Jack', and people still write variations on the wall).

White Horse TavernThe White Horse's old neon sign. Photo by Paul Simpson.

The Half King (Chelsea)

A bar and restaurant owned by writers might sound like a tragic recipe for failure (particularly when one penned The Perfect Storm), but the Half King steadfastly defies such easy ironies. Owned by Sebastian Junger, Nanette Burstein and Scott Anderson, the Half King has created a successful hybrid between a comfy pub and candlelit writer’s hideaway. Weekly readings feature some of today’s foremost writers.

Sardi’s (Theater District)

Widely known as the restaurant and bar plastered with celebrity caricatures (and occasionally plastered celebrities themselves), Sardi’s also holds some interest for those with a bookish bent. Heywood Broun, of Algonquin Roundtable fame, also found time to be a member of Sardi’s 'Cheese Club', a group of journalists, critics and agents that met frequently at Sardi’s that included Walter Winchell, Ward Morehouse and Ring Lardner.

UntitledCaricature-lined walls of Sardi's. Photo by Eric Konon.

Chumley’s (West Village)

One of several theories on the origin of the verb 'eighty-six' – to throw out, remove, or refuse service to a customer – comes from the back door address of the classic literary watering hole Chumley’s. If the police raided the bar, patrons – perhaps even the famed literary ones including Steinbeck, Faulkner, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald – were told to eighty-six it out the garden door. Chumley’s itself was eighty-sixed after the chimney collapsed in 2007, but it is set to reopen toward the end of 2012.

Kettle of Fish (West Village)

Kettle of Fish has moved around to several locations since it opened in 1950 above the legendary Gaslight Cafe, and it picked up some interesting clientele (Dylan, Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson among others) and inherited some history along the way. Today it’s a dive bar, sports bar, gay bar, boho literary bar all in one cozy cellar – maybe it’s your bar too?

McSorley’s Old Ale House (Lower East Side)

McSorley’s has been serving ale since 1854(ish), but only allowed women through the door in 1970. Still y-chromosome-heavy (but also tourist-heavy), little has changed through multiple waves of hipness, unhipness, and so-unhip-that-it’s-hip-ness. No matter what you want to order you get two mugs of ale. Notable patrons such as Joseph Mitchell, e.e. cummings, and Brendan Behan, not to mention two presidents (Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt), also got two mugs of ale (at the very least – Abe could put it away).

McSorley'sMcSorley's Old Ale House. Photo by JPC Raleigh.