The interior of the Writing Room.

photo by: The Writing Room

April 4, 2018

A Brewable Feast: One Writer’s Journey Through New York City’s Historic Bars

For generations of authors, poets, and journalists, bars have been the heart of the literary social scene. Writers have flocked to bars for decades to share ideas, observe interactions, or simply enjoy a cocktail after a long day at the typewriter. And because no city in the United States bursts at the seams with writers quite like New York City does, the Big Apple is packed with historic bars and a myriad of stories connected to them.

Writer Delia Cabe knows this as well as anyone, having visited over 30 of New York City’s most decorated historic watering holes for her book Storied Bars of New York: Where Literary Luminaries Go to Drink. In Storied Bars, Cabe crisscrosses through the boroughs, exploring the city’s literary past through the bars those famed writers patronized. We spoke with Cabe about her experience researching and writing the book, as well as the enduring importance and appeal of historic bars.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Where did the idea for Storied Bars come from?

My agent had sent out [to publishers] a proposal for a book about cocktails with literary themes five or six years ago. Cocktail books were trending, but I was on the tail end of the trend. A few years later, she said it looked like publishers were interested in cocktail books again, so we sent the proposal out [once more].

Countryman Press came back to us and asked if I would be interested in doing a book about literary bars in New York City. It was a natural marriage for me, given that I grew up in the city, and I’m a bookworm, and I was always interested in New York’s history, especially its literary history.

Describe the process of researching and writing this book. What did you hope to find out?

The goal of the book was not only to look into New York City’s literary bar past, but also to see what’s up and coming. I traveled back to the city on a couple of 48-hour trips and revisited some old haunts, then made sure I visited all the newer haunts. I interviewed bar owners, authors, and the people who managed the bars, if they weren’t the original owners. I tried some cocktails, but because I was working, I wasn’t going to drink a full cocktail at each one of these places.

It was a lot of fun. It’s funny because I’ve been writing nonfiction my whole career, and no one has ever offered to help me with my research until I got this book contract. All of a sudden, former students, current students, and friends are all offering their help. [laughs]

How did you go about understanding the historical and cultural context behind each bar?

I read deeply into various aspects of the city. One of the most useful books—it’s a real doorstopper—is a book called Gotham. It must be a thousand pages. I read novels from the time, biographies, various people’s memoirs, and things like old newspapers and Works Progress Administration guidebooks from the 1930s.

The exterior of the White Horse Tavern.

photo by: Delia Cabe

Dylan Thomas is commemorated throughout the White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village, where the famed poet took his final drinks before dying of pneumonia at St. Vincent's Hospital in 1953.

It was really important for me to get a sense of the feel of a place, and its place within the city. I think that cultural geography of place dictates what the bar is going to be like. Bars are set within communities, and each have their own social history.

What makes historic bars so special? How does the history of a bar inform your experience of patronizing it?

In those old bars, you almost feel like the DNA of its past is in every crevice. The wooden bar at the White Horse Tavern—it’s been there since the place opened. And the same thing at McSorley’s, that sense of how many elbows have leaned against this bar.

You go into a place like T.G.I. Fridays and there’s fake bric-a-brac. You can’t imagine that someone has scoured thrift shops to find and tack up all those old posters. But the genuine old bars, they have the real stuff: the newspaper clippings, the photos, the wishbones in lighting fixtures [like at McSorley’s]. Things just have a habit of staying there, like their old brass cash registers. No one uses them, but they’re too heavy to move. So they just stay at the bar, and people start hanging stuff off of them. They’re almost like pieces of artwork in progress.

These bars are pockets of history. You can go into them and, even though you’re in the present, you can step back and get a sense of what they might have been. But they’re not like museums—they are very much alive and vibrant places today.

Were there any bars you came across that weren’t adequately preserved or were threatened in some way?

Actually, the bar at the Hotel Chelsea, El Quijote, closed at the end of March. El Quijote was one of the first true Spanish restaurants in the country. The hotel was bought by someone new, and it’s been under plans for renovation for years. Some new restaurateur bought it a few years ago, and they said he’d keep it as El Quijote, but he’s since decided to shutter it.

These bars are pockets of history. You can go into them and, even though you’re in the present, you can step back and get a sense of what they might have been.

Conversely, did you find any bars that did a particularly strong job of preserving its history despite being threatened?

A good example of what to do is Elaine’s, which is now The Writing Room. Elaine’s was this place on the Upper East Side that was chock-full of writers every night. Restaurateur Elaine Kaufman had moved there from Greenwich Village, and every night was just a “who’s who” of journalists and authors. She welcomed writers and understood that freelancers’ income flows weren’t steady. The person who wrote the book Forrest Gump [Winston Groom] ran up a several thousand-dollar tab, and when he sold the rights to the movie, he went in and paid off his tab. People can’t do that nowadays. Elaine had a weak spot for writers.

When she died, she willed [the bar] to one of her managers. But her manager couldn’t keep it going, so new people bought it and renamed it The Writing Room. They have pictures from Elaine’s up on the wall, and they have a room you can dine in called "the Library" that's filled with books and typewriters. They were able to preserve part of its past while moving forward into the future.
The interior of the Algonquin Hotel.

photo by: The Algonquin Hotel

The Algonquin Hotel in Manhattan was the gathering place for the Round Table, a group of writers and actors known for their wit that included Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker.

Which of the bars that you visited was your favorite?

I loved Bemelmans because it feels like a throwback to another time when people went to a club and sat at small tables close together to listen to live music. You feel like you should be dressing in your best sequined cocktail dress, with gloves that go up to your elbows. I like bars that have whimsy to them.

Lastly, after all your research, why do you think writers are drawn to bars?

There are some who can’t stand being around people, but writers are basically observers. They generally enjoy eavesdropping and watching how humans interact. And a bar is a perfect place for that, for conversation or non-conversation. Writers can see how people talk to each other and how they handle various social situations. It’s a place where you can be present or you can just hide in a corner with a book. It’s like a microcosm of a community.

Nicholas Som is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. He enjoys museums of all kinds, Philadelphia sports, and tracking down great restaurants.

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