The Insider

McSorley’s Old Ale House: As close to a British pub as you can get in the US

McSorley’s is not a fake-feeling wannabe Irish pub, this is the real deal, writes Holly Baxter

Tuesday 08 February 2022 21:30 GMT
<p>The only two drinks available behind the bar are ‘light beer’ or ‘dark beer’ </p>

The only two drinks available behind the bar are ‘light beer’ or ‘dark beer’

Among the upscale tourist bars and trendy university haunts favoured by NYU students in the East Village is a New York institution established in 1854: McSorley’s Old Ale House. This is not an oyster bar with a wine list, nor a place where you can watch the Super Bowl. This is as close to a British pub as you can really get in the US of A, complete with the timescales – as the website proclaims proudly: “We were here before you were born!”

Inside McSorley’s, that tagline comes to life. The floor is covered in sawdust, and the only two drinks available behind the bar are “light beer” or “dark beer”, served in idiosyncratic measurements that are approximately half a pint (it’s usual to order in fours, even if there’s only two of you.) They don’t accept cards, and they only added a women’s toilet in the 1980s according to the newspaper clippings adorning their own wood-panelled walls. Former bartender-turned-owner Matty Maher died in 2020, and in his obituary in the New York Times was described as having “helped the East Village saloon survive neighbourhood blight and change its ways by admitting women and banning smoking”.

McSorley’s is not a “plastic paddy” institution the likes of which you do see throughout America, fake-feeling wannabe Irish pubs with shamrocks on the shopfront and leprechaun mascot decals on the windows. Its patrons are fairly low-key and often middle-aged; its decor is minimal and low-effort, bar a collection of lucky wishbones from the war that hang behind the bar and the occasional framed clipping talked about wanted murderers, local sports victories, or the famous lawsuit against the bar that ended up forcing them to build that aforementioned women’s toilet. This is a place to go if you already know about it. The menu written daily on the two chalkboards by the bar is not tailored to tourists or finicky appetites so much as casual passers-by.

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