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The Great Literary Bars of NYC

New York's literati drank here: A guide to New York watering holes from a writer’s perspective.

It’s almost a given that writers—novelists, journalists, bloggers—do their best “work” in bars. Whether you’re a struggling author with the Great American Novel trapped inside, curious to see where Jack Kerouac or Zadie Smith bent elbows, or simply like bars with a bookish vibe, New York has got you covered.

Writerly Hangs

Any serious exploration of New York’s literary drinking scene begins with two classics— Pete's Tavern and The White Horse Tavern:

Pete’s Tavern
The “O’Henry booth” at Pete’s Tavern, where the writer supposedly wrote “The Gift of the Magi.” (©Evan Sung)

The pressed-tin ceilings and ornate back bar at Pete’s Tavern (129 E. 18th St., 212.473.7676) aren’t ironic or “throwback,” they’re the real deal. Pete’s dates back to 1864, and it’s been a Gramercy Park fixture ever since (it claims to be the oldest continuously operating bar/restaurant in New York City).

Many creatives have thrown back a drink or three here: Ludwig Bemelmans wrote his first "Madeline" book here, supposedly on the back of a menu. O. Henry, who lived just down the street, mentions the bar (changing the name to Kenealy’s) in his short story “The Lost Blend” and legend holds that he wrote “The Gift of the Magi” here (sans laptop).

These days, Pete’s is a welcoming, casual drinking and dining spot attracting locals and literature fans alike. Straightforward bar fare and classic Italian dishes (think: linguine bolognese and veal parmigiana) are accompanied by well-made classic cocktails, Pete’s famous house-made eggnog, and signature drinks like the Pineapple Jerry, a blend of Sailor Jerry rum, Licor 43, pineapple juice, sour mix and cinnamon.

Pete’s Tavern
The popular Pineapple Jerry at Pete’s Tavern. (©Evan Sung)

The White Horse Tavern (567 Hudson St., 212.989.3956) opened in 1880 but began attracting the Beat poets and the early folk music scene in the 1950s and 1960s. Here the likes of Kerouac, Bob Dylan, Norman Mailer and Hunter S. Thompson all spent time.

But the most well-known tale is that of poet Dylan Thomas, who did not go gentle into that good night. Thomas famously went on a massive bender, followed by a couple of beers at the White Horse in November 1953, returned to the Chelsea Hotel, where he was staying, and died a few days later. Though we highly recommend you do not emulate the poet, the cash-only spot is ideal for beer from the likes of Brooklyn Brewery and Oskar Blues, along with shots and classic mixed drinks like a mimosa, martini or Negroni.

Elsewhere, many establishments attracting creatives in New York City fall into the neighborhood-tavern or inexpensive-dive category. For Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and the rest of the 1920s writing/theatrical group, The Vicious Circle (as they were originally called), such surroundings simply wouldn’t do.

Instead, they took their martini-fueled “business meetings” at Midtown’s Algonquin Hotel (59 W. 44th St., 212.840.6800), where they became known as the Round Table. “More drinking than writing certainly got completed there,” notes Kevin Fitzpatrick, the author of "The Algonquin Round Table New York: A Historical Guide". Today, thanks to a face-lift, you can sit at the Round Table (in the restaurant) or sip on martinis in the hotel’s iconic Blue Bar, the space where the Round Table tribe originally convened.

The Blue Bar
The Blue Bar at the Algonquin Hotel (©Evan Sung)

Perhaps the most vibrant literary street in New York right now is MacDougal, south of Washington Square. Recent upgrades make the thriving New York University-populated street worth a visit. In the 1930s and 1940s, Minetta Tavern (113 MacDougal St., 212.475.3850) attracted everyone from authors (Ernest Hemingway, Joseph Mitchell) to bohemians, such as the eccentric Joe Gould, who claimed to be writing a comprehensive history of the modern world.

Restaurateur Keith McNally kept the historic trappings, but reinvented the space as a celebrity-studded destination. Century-old Caffé Dante (79-81 MacDougal St., 212.982.5275), frequented by artists such as poet/musician Bob Dylan, recently closed and was lovingly restored (the original tin-ceiling pattern was hunted down, as were 1950s-era banquettes). Now, an elevated Italian dinner menu is augmented by expertly made, seasonally inflected cocktails.

And Kerouac used to live above the Gaslight Cafe, a coffeehouse (with famously terrible coffee), which opened in 1958 and helped turn Greenwich Village into a folk music mecca. Today it’s called the Up & Up (116 MacDougal St., 212.260.3000), a casually immaculate, semisubterranean bar featuring craft cocktails served with no attitude.

I Read That Book

Because writers so happily hang around taverns and boîtes, many great works employ real bars as settings. Often, there are direct crossovers: Joseph Mitchell set much of his book "Joe Gould’s Secret" at Minetta Tavern, and acclaimed poet Alfred Corn wrote “Brodsky at the Caffé Dante” because that’s where the action happened.

Some settings are critical to the story. Sure, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald frolicked in the fountain in front of the Plaza Hotel, but fictional Jay Gatsby spent time there because it made sense for the era’s wealthy social set. Today, the Plaza honors its Jazz Age literary heritage in the plush Rose Club Bar (768 Fifth Ave., 212.546.5311), where live music, distressed velvet seating and pre-Prohibition cocktails (like the Whiskey Mac, a blend of Dewar’s and ginger wine) reign supreme. There’s even a remodeled Fitzgerald Suite available, adorned in black-and-gray Art Deco patterns.

In Tom Robbins’ infectiously abstract 1976 novel "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues," Sissy Hankshaw and her friend discuss “dancing Friday night at Kenny’s Castaways.” The lowbrow live-music party venue closed recently, to reopen as Carroll Place (157 Bleecker St., 212.260.1700), a higher-brow, attractive gastropub and wine bar. There’s still live music, but beer pong has been replaced by an impressive wine selection and colorful cocktails like the Bleecker Street Sour (rye, amaretto, lemon juice, egg white, topped off with a Montepulciano wine float).

Carroll Place
Try a flaming Bontempo at Carroll Place, formerly Kenny’s Castaways, in the heart of Greenwich Village. (©Evan Sung)

It’s also tough to find bars highlighted in contemporary fiction that are still open. Circumstances that make for dramatic storytelling (gentrification, avant-garde twentysomethings trying to find themselves, high-profile living) exist within a rapidly shifting retail universe in real life.

Many of the Williamsburg, Brooklyn, “first wave” hot spots mentioned in Joanna Smith Rakoff’s pre-and-post 9/11 novel "A Fortunate Age"—like Galapagos and Oznot’s Dish—have closed. Likewise, most of the ritzy, model-populated sites frequented by "American Psycho" protagonist and ultimate scenester Patrick Bateman were either fictional or have morphed into nondestination CVS drugstores.

However, Texarkana, where Bateman thinks he catches a glimpse of Donald Trump’s ex-wife Ivana, is now Alta (64 W. 10th St., 212.505.7777), a luxe, romantic spot serving small plates and boasting a lengthy wine menu. Harry’s (1 Hanover Sq., 212.785.9200), another one of Bateman’s hangouts, underwent renovations and has reopened, but still maintains the classic steak-house ambience. 

Bars And Books

Perhaps it’s not an author’s ghost you seek, but simply a spot with a literary feel. Done. Hudson Bar and Books (636 Hudson St., 212.229.2642, the first of several locations) was an innovator in the concept of cocktail bars surrounded by shelves of hardcover books. It’s also a cigar bar.

Order James Bond’s favorite drink, the Vesper (gin, vodka, Lillet blanc), and light up a fine maduro. An events calendar often includes classic Bond films and specialized whiskey tastings.

Library at the NoMad Hotel
A bookish ambience is what you will find at the Library at the NoMad Hotel. (©Evan Sung)

For an equally elegant experience, the bars at The NoMad Hotel (1170 Broadway, 212.796.1500) are must-dos. Bar director Leo Robitschek and his talented staff regularly win national and international awards for their exquisite drinks, like the rich Gentlemen’s Exchange (rye, Suze, amaro, vermouth, coffee, absinthe and bitters).

Most of the bars are open to anyone, but the Library bar, an intimate den of sofas and club chairs, surrounded by shelves stacked with historic cookbooks and adventure texts, is generally reserved for hotel guests (if you’re there at just the right moment and are extra nice, you might get lucky). 

Bookmarks, the inside-outside rooftop bar at the Library Hotel (299 Madison Ave., 212.204.5498) is similarly adorned, but accessible to the general public all day long. Themed drinks, like The Pulitzer (Plymouth gin, elderflower liqueur, Fernet-Branca, lemon juice and agave nectar), add some fun to the night’s experience.

It’s important to remember that New York’s literary drinking scene isn’t a past-tense experience: While researching (read: drinking) for this article at Caffé Dante, I found myself randomly seated alongside a Wall Street Journal author and a novelist of some note. In fact, many of the aforementioned watering holes still attract the literati. “The Algonquin wasn’t just a 1919–1929 author hangout,” insists Dorothy Parker expert Fitzpatrick. “I’m always running into writers. Authors still go there to meet publishers and have a drink.”

Map of Great Literary Bars in NYC