Julius' Bar view from the inside looking out

photo by: Tom Bernardin

December 31, 2015

Julius' Bar in Greenwich Village, New York City

All the dives, taverns, and gin joints in our Historic Bars series can claim their own little slice of historical impact. But few can claim as pivotal a role in LGBT history as Julius’ Bar in New York City’s Greenwich Village.

Tom Bernardin, the “unofficial” historian and long-time regular at New York’s oldest gay bar, describes the neighborhood dive as “very much like Cheers. It’s kind of everybody’s living room.” Built as a dry goods store in the 1840s, back when Waverly Street was known as Factory Street due to the wool carding building nearby, the business became a drinking establishment in the 1860s—a moment in time when the multitude of piers along the Hudson River led to a similar multitude of drinking houses for the local laborers and working-class residents.

The bar became known as Julius’ during its Prohibition-era stint as a speakeasy. After World War II, thanks to a music venue called Nick’s around the corner, Julius’ began to attract musicians who came over after their shows to take advantage of cheaper drinks.

Slowly, the working class crowd gave way to a creative class crowd—one that, in Bernardin’s words, lent a “certain sophistication” to the place that likely helped gay patrons feel more comfortable there. By the 1950s into the 1960s, Julius’ was attracting primarily gay men, most of whom tended to be white, middle-class, college-educated, and closeted (as opposed to the more racially diverse and working-class patrons at Stonewall Inn).

Sip-In Photo © 2016 Courtesy Estate of Fred W. McDarrah. All Rights Reserved.

photo by: Estate of Fred W. McDarrah

On April 21, 1966, after pouring their drinks, a bartender at Julius' refused to serve John Timmins, Dick Leitsch, Craig Rodwell (1940-1993), and Randy Wicker,Mattachine Society members who were protesting New York State liquor laws that prohibited serving gay customers.

At that point in time, however, the New York Liquor Authority prohibited serving alcohol to “disorderly” patrons, a category extended to include homosexuals. So, taking their cue from the civil rights sit-ins of the era, members of the Mattachine Society—one of the first gay rights groups in the country—decided to stage a “Sip-In” where they would go into an establishment, declare they were gay, and, if denied service, sue for the right to be served.

On April 21, 1966—three years and two months before the Stonewall riots—after trying out a few other establishments, the Mattachine members eventually arrived at Julius’. There, the management (playing along to help make the point) refused to serve the men drinks. With the photo and story captured by the press, the “Sip-In” participants finally had their case, sparking an investigation from the New York City Commission on Human Rights and a successful challenge to the law in court.

Today when you walk into Julius’, the humble interior belies its significant role in the gay rights movement. But that same laidback, welcoming atmosphere is what has kept Bernardin returning time after time.

“I go there with anticipation,” he says. “You always find somebody who’s an expert in something. It’s like an encyclopedia there of various interests and talents. You can’t beat that."

Visit Julius' Bar

Location: 159 West 10th Street, New York, NY 10014

Hours: Monday–Saturday, 11:00 a.m.–4:00 a.m.; Sunday, 12:00 p.m.–3:00 a.m. (Plus, every third Thursday of the month is Mattachine Night.)

You’re Having: The “All day everyday drink special” (a steal in NYC)—$5.00 Long Island Ice Tea, Sex on the Beach, and Lemon Drop shots. Pair it with “the best-kept secret at this joint,” namely, the juicy $6 Julius Burgers with onion rings or fries.

Fun Fact: Bar lore says that Julius is named after a prior owner’s Basset hound—a theory supported (for some) by the series of brass Basset hounds along the foot of the bar rail.

Best Yelp Review: “Julius is an unsung hero of New York City, singlehandedly solving a ton of West Village problems by providing a non-pretentious, low maintenance haven of familiar drinks with CHEAP & GOOD food where all gays and non-gays and everyone in between can bask in the edgy but oddly secure-feeling (don't forget the bouncers) nook. Julius is a watering hole through and through; quenching the body and soul with humanity's most favorite poisons.” – Jia J.

Julia Rocchi is the director of content marketing at the National Trust. By day she wrangles content; by night (and weekends), she shops local, travels to story-rich places, and gawks at buildings.


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