New York City is known for its literary past and present, but did you know that many of the city’s literary landmarks can be found in its taverns and pubs? That’s right — it seems books and booze share a natural affinity in the Big Apple.
From dark dens to glitzy hotel lounges, here are some of New York City’s most famous libatious literary locations.
Bemelmans Bar Carlyle Hotel (Upper East Side)
Named after Ludwig Bemelmans, the author and illustrator of the classic “Madeline” children’s books, Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle is an establishment that continues to attract socialites, politicians, and business moguls with its timeless menu and atmosphere. Through its many years, the bar has maintained its Art Deco legacy, distinct New York style, and artistic flair — it even features Bemelmans’ only publicly displayed artwork. So if you’re up for a bit of opulence on your literary tour, head to the Upper East Side.
Chumley’s (Greenwich Village)
One of the absolute best hidden gems in NYC is this blacksmith’s shop-turned-speakeasy was a haven for the poets, novelists, and playwrights who shaped 20th-century literature — authors such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Willa Cather, William Faulkner, Eugene O’Neill, Orson Welles, John Steinbeck, and Edna St. Vincent Millay all frequented the secret hideaway. Although much of the building collapsed in 2007, the venerable drinking den has since reopened and can be visited today. Fun fact: Manhattan folklore claims that the term “86ed,” meaning to be forcibly ejected from a bar, derives from the bar’s secret door located at 86 Bedford Street.
Kettle of Fish (West Village)
Although Kettle of Fish stays true to its roots as a “Greenwich Village neighborhood bar,” the establishment has relocated several times and picked up some interesting clientele along the way, including the likes of Bob Dylan, Jack Kerouac, and Hunter S. Thompson, among others. Since its opening in 1950, the bar has continued to welcome people from all walks of life: beat writers, musicians, sports fans, intellectuals, and even average Joes. If you’re searching for a dive-y, yet bookish atmosphere in nyc, Kettle of Fish is your spot.
KGB Bar (East Village)
This dimly lit, parlor-style drinking room has become something of a New York literary institution since it first opened in 1992. KGB’s most noteworthy offerings are its regular fiction readings on Sundays, poetry readings on Mondays, and open readings on most Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. Admission is free, drinks are cheap (and strong), and the level of excellence is so well known that KGB has been named the best literary venue in New York City by just about every organization that bestows such titles.
McSorley’s Old Ale House (East Village)
McSorley’s first opened its weathered doors in 1854, but still stands as a popular watering hole today. With its cast-iron stove, well-worn floors, and walls covered in newspaper clippings and vintage photographs, this saloon retains the air of an older, forgotten New York. In its prime, the bar attracted many writers, including E. E. Cummings, who wrote the inspired poem “I Was Sitting in McSorley’s” in 1923. But it is with writer Joseph Mitchell that McSorley’s is most associated. Writing often about the street characters who lived on the fringes of New York society, Mitchell published “McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon” in 1943 — a chronicle of the motley clientele of the bar and the mechanics, booksellers, waterfront workers, bar-room scroungers, and old men he met there.
Old Town Bar (Flatiron District)
Old Town dates back to 1892, when it opened as a German bar and restaurant called Viemeister’s. During the early 20th century, the bar gained a reputation of being a gathering place for Tammany Hall politicians and literary patrons such as Frank McCourt, Nick Hornby, and Billy Collins. With its wooden booths, parquet floors, high ceilings, and antique fixtures, this watering hole remains a photogenic gem of the city — even though it now answers to a different name.
Minetta Tavern (Greenwich Village)
Founded in 1937 by Eddie “Minetta” Sieveri, Minetta Tavern was originally a bar and an Italian restaurant. Though its menu offerings have changed a bit since then, this NYC hidden gem’s interior has been largely preserved. In fact, its black-and-white checkerboard floor, tin ceilings, wooden bar stools, red booths, and hanging chandeliers have remained unchanged, offering the same atmosphere that literary patrons such as Ernest Hemingway, E. E. Cummings, Ezra Pound, Joe Gould, Eugene O’Neill, William Saroyan, and Dylan Thomas once enjoyed.
Sardi’s (Theater District)
Although this particular location is widely known for its display of celebrity caricatures, Sardi’s holds a bit of literary intrigue as well. In fact, writers such as Heywood Broun belonged to Sardi’s Cheese Club — an exclusive group of journalists, drama critics, and press agents who met frequently at the bar. Some of the club’s other luminaries included Walter Winchell, Ward Morehouse, and Ring Lardner. Fun fact: Sardi’s was also the birthplace of the Tony Award.
Pete’s Tavern (Manhattan)
This cozy neighborhood tavern near Gramercy Park has been catering to thirsty New Yorkers since 1864. But aside from its storied Prohibitionist past, Pete’s Tavern is steeped in literary history. It’s even said that O. Henry sat in one of Pete’s booths and scrawled his famed short story “the Gift of the Magi” on the back of a menu in 1905. And, decades later, the dark tavern also served as the setting that inspired the first drafts of Ludwig Bemelmans’ “Madeline.” The bar still has its original pressed-tin ceiling, carved rosewood bar, and giant, cave-like booths, but if you visit, we suggest that you don’t deface the menus with inspired prose.
The Algonquin Hotel (Midtown Manhattan)
Throughout the 1920s, the Algonquin Hotel was the meeting place of a group of local writers, journalists, playwrights, critics, and actors who called themselves the “Round Table.” These regulars included the likes of Dorothy Parker, George S. Kauffman, Robert Benchley, Heywood Broun, and the New Yorker’s own Harold Ross. Today, the Algonquin remains one of Manhattan’s finest historic hotels and literary hubs. Keep in mind that if you choose to visit and stay for a drink, you’re likely to spend close to $20 on a single cocktail.
The White Horse Tavern (West Village)
Situated on Hudson Street in the West Village, the White Horse is one of Manhattan’s most well-known literary bars. Poets and beat writers once thronged to the cozy neighborhood venue, including Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson, James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, and John Ashbery. But the White Horse is most synonymous with Dylan Thomas. On November 3, 1953, it’s said that the poet drank 18 consecutive shots of whiskey, collapsed on the pavement outside, and had to be carried to his room at the Chelsea Hotel. Soon after, he was taken to St. Vincent’s Hospital, where he died of pneumonia. A room at the tavern was dedicated to Thomas in 1986 and the late writer’s portrait now hangs over his favorite table.
The Half King (Chelsea)
Owned by Sebastian Junger, Nanette Burstein, and Scott Anderson, the Half King is a comfy pub and candlelit hideaway for lovers of literature. Founded in 2000 as a meeting place for people in the publishing and film industries, this literary-themed bar offers weekly readings and bi-monthly slideshows that showcase the work of some of today’s foremost writers and photojournalists. This NYC institution is set apart by its clientele, who come from all over greater New York and include firemen, bankers, journalists, and artists.
Looking for more hidden gems in NYC? Check out out our Hidden NYC Travel Guide.