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Finding the 'Other' Williamsburg at 122 Year-Old Teddy's

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There are more than 6,000 bars in New York City. About 200 of them get regular press. This column is about the other ones. Robert Simonson, a journalist and blogger of the drinking life, and the originator of the "A Beer At..." column, takes a peek inside Gotham’s more anonymous watering holes, one by one.

[Adam Lerner]

Is Teddy's an anonymous, unknown bar? Not exactly. I remember, back in the days when Williamsburg was an actual artistic enclave—when scruffy young men wore wool caps because they were cold and poor, not because it was part of the hipster uniform—Teddy's was a key artist hangout. But today this wonderful old tavern is overshadowed by dozens of trendier new watering holes.
Teddy's is the oldest bar in Williamsburg. It's been around since 1889. For its first 30 years, it was a franchise bar serving a local brew whose name can still be seen in the beautiful stained-glass window facing the street: Peter Doelger's Extra Beer. That the sign is still there is a bit of a miracle, since Doelger's hasn't been made since Prohibition. Doelger was a millionaire beer baron, and probably a bit of a capitalist bastard; an anarchist once left a bomb on his doorstep. He also disapproved of his daughter Mathilda marrying a boxer named John West, even though that union gave the world Mae West.

One would love to picture Mae lifting one or two here at some point. But Mathilda remarried in the 1890s—wedding the son of another local brewer (sounds like daddy's doing)—so it's hard to say. Tammany Hall pols almost made good use of the place back in the day when saloons did double duty as political centers. An Alderman actually lived upstairs once.

The food served here is a relatively new phenomenon—new, meaning the last couple decades—and the weekend brunch is popular. Live bands play here Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays as part of a series that goes by the rather square name of "Williamsburg Nights." Television sets are tuned to the night's game. I always considered televisions in a historic bar a desecration of sacred space. But such are the compromises that must be made to please a modern clientele, for which drinking and talking is not entertainment enough.

The patrons on a recent night seem strangely not of Williamsburg. Parents with children, older couples, a group of visiting Japanese tourists. Or maybe this is just the other Williamsburg, the one that doesn't get the press. And maybe in twenty years, when the current crop of tattoo-parlor habitues have moved on, and the hot bar of the moment is a distant memory, these unglamorous barflies will still be here. And so will Teddy's.
—Robert Simonson