In the days before coffee houses offered free WiFi and books existed only on Kindle, taverns used to be the places writers socialized, jotted down ideas on scraps of paper, and even penned entire works. Here’s a choice selection of the city’s most notorious dining and drinking establishments from a literary perspective.
As late as 1901, the stream called Minetta Waters — which ran from Union Square along a crooked path to the Hudson River — teemed with trout. Paved over it became the complex of small streets known as the Minetta Triangle, where Minetta Tavern opened in 1937. Its basement was the original home of the Reader’s Digest, and it quickly became the favorite drinking and dining spot of Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Eugene O’Neill, and E.E. Cummings. The menu was mainly Italian. The place was also the perpetual refuge of Joe Gould, an eccentric author known as Professor Seagull. The diminutive beatnik poet slept on park benches and set out to write the longest book in the world. His hilarious escapades were chronicled by Joseph Mitchell in the New Yorker and later made into a movie directed by Stanley Tucci. Retaining many of its fixtures so that much of the old atmosphere prevails, Keith McNally turned Minetta Tavern into an upscale restaurant in 2009. As Frank Bruni noted, "Mr. McNally has buffed what needed buffing, added what needed adding….It’s high-gloss nostalgia." 113 Macdougal St, (212) 475-3850.
White Horse Tavern
While Minetta Tavern has been reconstructed to resemble an upscale version of itself, the ancient White Horse retains much of its 1880s flavor from the early days when it was frequented by dockworkers. The place is littered with dust-covered effigies of white horses, and a horse head graces the neon sign that shines like a lighthouse beacon on Hudson Street. Its greatest literary associations date to the 50s and 60s, when Bob Dylan, Norman Mailer, Jane Jacobs, Jim Morrison, and Mary Travers (of Peter, Paul, and Mary) drank and put on the feedbag there. For a time Jack Kerouac lived upstairs in a cramped apartment, and there are those that claim you can still see carved on one of the bathroom stalls, "Jack Go Home!" Of course, the most famous literary association concerns the Welsh poet that Bob Dylan named himself after: Dylan Thomas, who regularly occupied a booth in the tavern, now commemorated with a brass plaque. One evening in 1953 he drank so much that he went home to the Chelsea Hotel, was transported to St. Vincent’s Hospital, and died soon after of alcohol poisoning. (Reportedly, he’d knocked back 18 whiskey shots.) 567 Hudson St, (212) 989-3956.
Founded in 1864 in the Gramercy Park neighborhood as the Civil War was coming to its climax, Pete’s is one of the city’s oldest continuously operating pubs. Like the White Horse, many of its decrepit fixtures remain intact, ensconced in a series of sunny rooms facing 18th Street. There are bentwood chairs, stamped tin ceilings, a geometrically tiled floor, and electric hanging globes that still look like the gaslights they once were. In warmer months, the place has a permit to spill tables out onto the sidewalk; the menu is mainly Italian and not particularly good. Oddly, Pete’s most famous author is O. Henry (the pseudonym of William Sydney Porter), an embezzling bank teller from Austin, Texas, who fled to New York and became one of America’s most talented short-story writers. He lived on Irving Place and frequented Pete’s when it was known as Healey’s, supposedly composing "The Gift of the Magi" in the barroom’s second booth. But Pete’s has made a greater mark as a setting for more-modern media — it has served as a setting for the movies Ragtime and Endless Love, and the TV shows Seinfeld, Sex and the City, and Law & Order. 129 E 18th St, (212) 473-7676.
Though the place now goes by the name of Overlook Lounge, at one time it was called Costello’s. As Michael and Ariane Batterby wrote of it in On the Town in New York, in the 40s and 50s "advertising men lifted elbows with New Yorker staffers and other various convivial literati, foreign correspondents, sports writers, playwrights, and novelists at Tim and Joe Costello’s bar and restaurant." Famously, Ernest Hemingway hung a broken shillelagh over the bar in 1944; some say he broke it as a test of strength, others that he broke it over short story writer John O’Hara’s head. The bar was immortalized in John McNultry’s Third Avenue, New York. Another habitué of Costello’s was James Thurber, who limned a mural on one wall. When Overlook Lounge took over in the 70s, that mural was painted over, but another one soon replaced it, this time done by Al Jaffee and Sergio Aragones from Mad Magazine and comic book artists Gil Kane and Milt Caniff, among many others. Cartoon characters are being added all the time. 225 E 44th St, (212) 682-7266.
Old Town Bar
This 1892 landmark, known for its amazing walk-in ceramic urinals in the men’s room, has also had a distinguished literary history, but mainly in the modern era. Frank McCourt was a regular, and so were Nick Hornby, Billy Collins, and Seamus Heaney. Madonna shot a video for "Bad Girl" there in 1993 featuring Christopher Walken in the picturesque marble-topped downstairs bar, outfitted with hanging gaslights and handsome wooden booths which still provide a modicum of tippling privacy. Foodwise, the chicken wings and burgers here are quite good. 45 East 18th St, (212) 529-6732.
Opened in 1922, Chumley’s started out as a speakeasy retrofitted from a cobbler’s shop. It was particularly suited to be a speakeasy, because it sported a labyrinthine layout and entrances on two sleepy thoroughfares, the one on Barrow Street concealed behind a gated courtyard shared by several buildings. By the late 20th century, the rooms of the bar were plastered with more book jackets than you could count, representing authors who’d drunk and dined there over the years. The menu wasn’t bad — more ambitious than bar food but hardly haute cuisine. The prime distinction of Chumley’s as a literary bar was how long it operated as such, through several generations of distinguished authors. In the speakeasy days, Edna St. Vincent Millay, John Dos Passos, and Theodore Dreiser tarried there; Eugene O’Neill and E.E. Cummings were patrons in the 40s; and by the 50s, it was a Beat destination. Williams S. Burroughs lived a few doors down on Bedford and invited pals like Allen Ginsberg, Lucien Carr, and Jack Kerouac. In 2007 a chimney collapsed into the dining room, shutting the place. This towering literary landmark has struggled to reopen since then and now lays fully renovated but dormant, opposed by NIMBYs but supported by lovers of literature.
Algonquin Round Table
Perhaps the only other institution with a literary reputation as long-lasting as Chumley’s was the bar and restaurant at the Algonquin Hotel just off Times Square, where poet and wit Dorothy Parker held her Round Table from 1919 to 1929, with a shifting catalog of participants in the publishing and entertainment industries. Named after the court of King Arthur, the cast of Round Table regulars included actor Robert Benchley (who famously said one rainy evening, "Let’s get out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini"), playwright George S. Kaufman, novelist Edna Ferber, actress Peggy Wood, and actor Harpo Marx — who really could talk, though he remained mute in his movies. Not associated with the Round Table, but regulars during other eras as well as frequent hotel guests, were Sinclair Lewis, William Faulkner, Derek Walcott, Maya Angelou, Erica Jong, Gertrude Stein, Simone de Beauvoir, and Helen Hayes (the Algonquin had a policy of being particularly welcoming to women). Nowadays, of course, the Algonquin Round Table is patronized mainly by literary tourists, who don’t mind paying $25 for eggs benedict. And so it goes.
So, where are up-and-coming authors hanging these days? Mainly in Brooklyn at places like Roberta’s, Local 61, and Diner.