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McSorley’s Old Ale House from “Rounders”

Jan 13th, 2017 | By | Category: Movie Locations

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It has been said that 60% of restaurants close within a year of opening and that 80% don’t make it past year five.  Many in New York, though, have real staying power.  Take McSorley’s Old Ale House, for example.  The East Village watering hole/eatery has been around for more than 16 decades!  Yep, 16 decades!  I first learned about the place thanks to The History and Stories of the Best Bars of New York while doing research for last April’s Big Apple vacay and figured the fact that Abraham Lincoln once drank there warranted it a visit.  So the Grim Cheaper and I headed to the historic tavern, along with our good friends Lavonna (she’s a major Lincoln aficionado – you may remember her from this post), Kim, and Katie, for lunch one sunny afternoon during our trip.  At the time, I had no idea McSorley’s was a filming location, so imagine my surprise when I spotted it while watching Rounders with the Grim Cheaper last week!  I so love it when a place I have visited pops up unexpectedly onscreen!

To say that McSorley’s Old Ale House is New York’s OG bar would be an understatement.  Originally established in 1854 by Irish native John McSorley, the site was initially dubbed “The Old House at Home.”  It held court under that moniker until 1908 when a storm hit Manhattan and knocked down the sign that hung out front.  John replaced it with one reading “McSorley’s Old Time Ale House,” thereby changing the name of his saloon.  (He later dropped the word “time”, as well.)

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I would be remiss if I didn’t mention here that the bar’s origin date has been disputed by various historians, namely researcher Richard McDermott, who asserts that the spot where McSorley’s now stands was a vacant lot up until 1858.  The NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission put McDermott’s doubts largely to rest, though, in this 2012 Designation Report, stating, “Supporting the claim that McSorley’s Old Ale House first opened on this site in 1854, tax records reveal that the first improvement on this lot may have occurred in the mid-1850s.  Though tax records note the lot as vacant until 1860-61, the value of the lot increased steadily between 1848 and 1856, indicating that a small structure may have been constructed here and not recorded (note: nearby lots did not change in value during the same period).  The lot was purchased in 1854 by real estate speculator John W. Mitchell.  As noted by Bill Wander, official historian for the pub, Mitchell may have constructed a small “taxpayer” structure on the lot to cover expenses, and McSorley’s could very possibly have operated out of this small structure.”

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Regardless, McSorley’s asserts itself as “New York City’s oldest continuously operating saloon.”  Other Big Apple bars, like Pete’s Tavern, may assert the same exact thing, but disputing the claim seems entirely beside the point.  No one can argue that McSorley’s has history.

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In 1864, the two-story structure that originally housed McSorley’s was renovated, expanded and transformed into a five-level tenement.  John and his family moved into a unit upstairs and then eventually purchased the building in 1888.

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When John passed away in 1910 at the age of 83, his son Bill took over operation of the bar.  Bill continued to run the place for the next 26 years, even keeping it open during Prohibition.  Though the sale of alcohol was outlawed during that time, McSorley’s managed to dole out ale made onsite in the basement.  Bill called his libation “near beer” and authorities were none the wiser.  As author Jef Klein states in The History and Stories of the Best Bars of New York, “McSorley’s passed through Prohibition without passwords, secret exits, or hideaways.”

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In 1936, Bill sold McSorley’s to a long-time customer/NYC policeman named Daniel O’Connell.  Daniel’s tutelage did not last long, though.  He passed away just three years later, leaving the bar to his daughter, Dorothy O’Connell Kirwan.  The change of hands was ironic considering that McSorley’s did not allow women on the premises at the time.  Kirwan promised her father that she would not overturn that rule.  She also vowed never to set foot in McSorley’s during operating hours – a promise she kept even after the establishment was forced to admit the fairer sex in 1970 thanks to a lawsuit brought about by two females who were denied entry.

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When Dorothy and her husband, Harry, passed away in 1974 and 1975, respectively, their son, Danny, inherited the bar.  Just two years later, he sold it to night manager Matthew Maher, who still owns the tavern to this day.

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Virtually nothing about the bar (aside from finally admitting women and the subsequent addition of a women’s restroom, which did not occur until 16 years later) has changed over its 163 year history – and I do mean nothing.

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The décor, the memorabilia, and even some of the fare (the cheese, crackers and raw onion dish has been offered since opening day!) remain untouched from the time that John McSorley ran the place.

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Menu items are written on chalkboards posted throughout the bar and, along with the aforementioned cheese plate, typically include hash, chili, burgers, and a fried chicken sandwich.

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Don’t go to McSorley’s hoping for a chilled glass of pinot, though.  As the name suggests, the only libation served on the premises is ale.

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Notables have long been attracted to McSorley’s no-frills environment.  Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, John Lennon, Woody Guthrie, Peter Cooper, e.e. cummings, Harry Houdini, J. Giels, John F. Kennedy, and Frank McCourt have all sidled up to the ale house’s bar at one time or another.

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Ah, yes, and Abraham Lincoln, who stopped by in 1960 while in town to give his famous Cooper Union address.

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McSorley’s boasts another connection to Lincoln.  An 1865 wanted poster offering a $100,000 reward for the capture of the president’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, hangs above the bar.  Yes, it’s an original.

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McSorley’s has also long proved popular with felines.  Ironically, while women were not welcome throughout much of the bar’s history, cats were.  Up until a city law was passed in 2011 which banned the animals from restaurants, a number of them called the watering hole home.  Aside from keeping vermin away, you could often find the McSorley’s cats curled up next to patrons or warming themselves by the pot-bellied stove.  When Bill ran the place, as many as 18 roamed the premises.  The most recent feline resident was a grey tabby named Minnie.  Ironically, McSorley’s was shut down by the health department briefly in November of last year for several violations.  One of the violations was – you guessed it – evidence of rats.  If only Minnie was still on duty!

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Considering McSorley’s historic aesthetic and unique decor, it is not surprising that it has wound up onscreen.  I mean, the place just looks like a movie set!  In Rounders, it is at McSorley’s that Jo (Gretchen Mol) admonishes her boyfriend, Mike McDermott (Matt Damon), for lying to her about gambling.

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The exterior of the bar was featured in the 1998 film, as well.

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The ale house also appeared in the 1984 gangster drama Once Upon a Time in America.  It is there that a young David ‘Noodles’ Aaronson (Scott Schutzman Tiler) and his friends choose a drunk to “roll.”

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In 1991’s The Hard Way, Nick Lane (Michael J. Fox) gives John Moss (James Woods) advice on women at McSorley’s.

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Folk singer Dave Van Ronk also posed outside of McSorley’s Old Ale House for the cover of his 1964 album, Inside Dave Van Ronk.  One of the bar’s former in-house cats even made it into the photo.

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For more stalking fun, follow me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Los Angeles magazine and Discover Los Angeles.

Big THANK YOU to my friend Kim for providing many of the images that appear in this post.  Smile

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Until next time, Happy Stalking!  Smile

Stalk It: McSorley’s Old Ale House, from Rounders, is located at 15 East 7th Street in New York’s East Village.  You can visit the watering hole’s official website here.

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3 comments

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  1. Lavonna says:

    Another fun day in NYC. I do believe we need to plan a reunion trip.

  2. Kim says:

    Fun place to visit and lunch as good. Thanks for taking us! Loving the movie connections, who knew?!

  3. Richard Y says:

    Besides appearing in a few productions, the history of the place is quite intriguing. Thanks for the history lesson.


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