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The Century Club

Confederate ghosts, Abe Lincoln's chair, Frank Sinatra's private pleasures. New York's nineteenth-century saloons have plenty of stories to tell.

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Bars have always played a major role in New York's history. The city's first tavern -- the rather uncreatively named City Tavern -- opened in 1641. Folks spent so much time there that it literally became the town hall. And by 1648, Peter Stuyvesant, the seventeenth century's own Rudy Giuliani, was already griping that 25 percent of the island's buildings had saloons in them. New York has reinvented itself many times since then, but the tavern has always retained its social centrality. Today's incarnations, with their velvet ropes, low-slung lounge furniture, and South American cocktails, may bear little surface resemblance to the smoky stand-up barrooms of yesteryear, but at heart they are the same. Why are bars such a big deal? Perhaps it's that people who choose to live in the country's most densely populated city are by nature social animals. Or it may have to do with the commercial nature of the city, the constant networking and social climbing that must get done; or maybe it's because when you live in a small apartment, it's not easy to entertain at home. Whatever the reason, many of the city's oldest pubs are still going strong. Indeed, some of the oldest are enjoying a renewal in their Golden Years. Here's to them: May they last another hundred years.

Old Town Bar and Restaurant (established 1892) 45 East 18th Street (212-529-6732)

Bob Crowley says his set for The Iceman Cometh was inspired by the Old Town, since once you enter you never want to leave. Maybe it's the fourteen-foot ceilings and high-backed booths, which have seated the likes of Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Ralph Fiennes, and the Brooklyn Dodgers. (See if yours is one of the seats with a Prohibition-era storage space underneath in case of a raid.) These days, regulars include Frank McCourt and Liam Neeson, who courted his wife, Natasha Richardson, here. Other classic touches include shots of Art Carney and Jackie Gleason on the wall, the ancient urinals, and the gaslights that patrons once lit to hail passing trolleys -- but the Old Town's coolest fixture is without a doubt the Tuesday-afternoon bartender, Richie O'Rourke, who cannot be stumped when it comes to sports trivia.

Teddy's Bar and Grill (established 1887) 96 Berry Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn (718-384-9787)

The new owners have put in a kitchen (and recently took out the piano!), but otherwise not too much has changed in this tin-ceilinged former speakeasy and union organizing hall since the day when Mae West was born upstairs. The bar was once home to Brooklyn's branch of Tammany Hall, but nowadays you're more likely to find would-be cineastes from the neighborhood. On Wednesday nights the bar hosts a Jazz Tap Jam that often features Savion Glover's mom on vocals. Check out the stained-glass window (ca. 1890) advertising Peter Doelger's Extra Beer, a long-defunct local brew.

The White Horse Tavern (established 1880) 567 Hudson Street (212-243-9260)

The James Dean Oyster House -- as it was once called -- was a private drinking establishment long before earning the liquor license hanging above the bar. The place attained legendary status in 1953 when Dylan Thomas downed his last whiskey, then staggered off to die; less famously, it was also a favorite of John Belushi's. After Belushi died, says co-owner Eddie Brennan, Dan Aykroyd would sometimes show up at closing time, lock the doors, and buy the house a round. Others who've spent time under the vintage horse-head light fixtures include the poet's namesake, Bob Dylan; Norman Mailer; Michael Crichton; and just about every Beat poet worth his weight in Benzedrine.

PJ Clarke's (established 1870s) 915 Third Avenue, at 55th Street (212-759-1650)

Frank Sinatra's favorite thing about this bar was the bathroom. "Those urinals!" he was once heard to joyfully exclaim. "You could stand Abe Beame in one of them and have room to spare." They are rather large -- Barbara Corcoran has probably rented smaller alcove studios -- but you don't have to pee standing up to take pleasure in this old gem. Dan Lavezzo, whose father took over Clarke's in the forties and turned it into a kind of Moomba of its day, says, "My memory of this place is of the palpable sense of energy and delight -- the electric surge -- when someone of stature would walk in casually," he says, giving Muhammad Ali as an example. "There was distance and intimacy at the same time." Jackie and Ari Onassis used to come in and people-watch from a window in the middle dining room; Johnny Mercer wrote "One for My Baby" on a napkin at the bar; and Louis Armstrong once played his trumpet in the back room -- and it wasn't a gig; he was just hanging out.

Landmark Tavern (established 1868) 626 Eleventh Avenue, at 46th Street (212-757-8595)

Landmark used to be a waterfront tavern (before Twelfth Avenue was built on landfill), but these days, it's a classy boîte where rock stars and Academy Award winners sip single-malts at the long bar, carved in 1839 from a single mahogany tree. Three ghosts are said to wander the premises, including those of an Irish girl who came here during the potato famine and died of cholera on the third floor at a time when it was used as a flophouse, and a Confederate soldier who was mortally wounded in a bar fight and died in the second-floor bathtub. When the third floor was a speakeasy, it was frequented by Hollywood actor and Hell's Kitchen native George Raft. Raft specialized in playing gangsters -- many thought he was one in real life -- and his movies were often set in New York boozeries where you'd knock three times or say something like "Joe sent me." The Landmark, of course, still has its original speakeasy door.

Pete's Tavern (established 1864) 129 East 18th Street (212-473-7676)

O. Henry never drank at Pete's -- it was called Healy's Cafe back in 1905, when he wrote "The Gift of the Magi" while drinking a concoction called the Lost Blend in the booth that now bears his name. Years later, the joint stayed open throughout Prohibition by pretending to be a flower shop. "They didn't kill themselves changing the façade," says co-owner John Reynolds. "I almost laugh when I look at the pictures." He adds that politicians drank here regardless. In more recent years, the bar served as a daytime hangout for the late JFK Jr. after he spotting a photo of his parents (also former patrons) on the wall. The back rooms once served as stables, but don't let that stop you from ordering dinner.

McSorley's Old Ale House (established 1854) 15 East 7th Street (212-473-9148)

The motto used to be "Good ale, raw onions, and no women," but these days, pretty much every Manhattan wastrel, male or female, has encountered McSorley's crusty staff, and its paired mugs of light or dark ale. (And only ale!) It's worth returning to sit at one of the carved-up tables (most are originals) and soak up 150 years of New York history over a quiet lunch. Consider it a tour of a musty unofficial branch of the Smithsonian. Star exhibits include the chair Abraham Lincoln once sat in behind the bar, Joseph Kennedy's hobnail boots (from his rum-running days) hanging from the ceiling in the back, photos of former patrons Babe Ruth and Will Rogers, and the decrepit wishbone display above the bar. Soldiers going off to war have traditionally sat down for a turkey dinner at McSorley's and left the wishbone behind, to be retrieved upon return. Each remaining wishbone -- some date to the Civil War -- represents a soldier who didn't make it.

Ear Inn (established 1817) 326 Spring Street (212-226-9060)

Sitting in this cramped, slant-floored, low-ceilinged dive -- once known as the Green Door -- feels like being in the bowels of a ship with your few dozen closest friends. Fitting, since the bar once sat only five feet from the shore and was long a sailors' hangout. Former patrons include John and Yoko, Salvador Dalí, and Tom Waits. "R.E.M., U2, Steve Winwood, you never know who's going to come in unannounced," says owner Martin Sheridan. But even if no one does, the burgers are shipshape.


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