New York City Bar Scrawl

Touring 9 of New York’s 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

WRITERLY HANGS

The pressed tin ceilings and ornate back bar at Pete’s Tavern aren’t “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 with clam sauce and veal parmigiana) are accompanied by well-made classic cocktails and signature drinks like the Pineapple Jerry, a blend of Sailor Jerry rum, Licor 43, pineapple juice, sour mix and cinnamon.

The White Horse Tavern 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. Later that night, he returned to the Chelsea Hotel, where he was staying, and died a few days later. While 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.

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, where they became known as the Round Table. “More drinking than writing certainly got completed there,” notes Kevin Fitzpatrick, author of “The Algonquin Round Table New York: A Historical Guide.” Today, 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.

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 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. Today, the space has been reinvented as a celebrity-studded destination. Century-old Caffé Dante, 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 at Dante is augmented by seasonally inflected cocktails. And Jack 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. It’s now called the Up & Up, a casually immaculate, semisubterranean bar featuring inventive craft cocktails served with no attitude.

Martini service at Dante. (Courtesy Dante)

I Read That Book

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 as part of the era’s wealthy social set. Today, the Plaza honors its Jazz Age literary heritage in the plush Rose Club Bar, 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 Fitzgerald Suite available, in black-and-gray Art Deco patterns.

In Tom Robbins’ 1976 novel “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues,” Sissy Hankshaw and her friend discuss “dancing Friday night at Kenny’s Castaways.” The lowbrow party venue closed recently, to reopen as Carroll Place, 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.

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 was an innovator in the concept of cocktail bars surrounded by shelves of hardcover books. It’s also a cigar bar with a calendar that often includes classic Bond films and whiskey tastings.

For an equally elegant experience, the bars at The NoMad Hotel are must-dos. 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 the right moment and are extra nice, you might get lucky). Bookmarks, the inside-outside rooftop bar at the Library Hotel is similarly adorned, but accessible to the public.

Finally, it’s important to remember that New York’s literary drinking scene is still alive. While researching for this article at Dante, I found myself seated alongside a Wall Street Journal author and a novelist of some note. Many of the aforementioned watering holes still attract the literati. And why not? As Dorothy Parker famously said, “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.”

Robert Haynes-Peterson
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