Historic New York Dive Bars (and who drank there)
You can divide dive-bar goers into two kinds: those who go to dive bars despite the fact they’re d
ive bars, and those who go because they’re dive bars. For some, the dim light and pint-glass marks on the bar are the price you pay for cheap drinks. For others, the ambiance has its own unmissable charm.
Gentrification has been tough on New York City’s dive bars, with many disappearing and being replaced with blander businesses. But many survive, keeping alive endless stories, although probably just as many have been forgotten after one too many.
Jimmy’s Corner, 140 West 44th Street
Jimmy’s Corner is owned by, and named for, boxing trainer Jimmy Glenn, and has a reputation as a welcoming, affordable place to drink near Times Square—and for some, a rare good reason to be anywhere near the place. The décor tends towards Christmas lights, boxing posters and photos, and dollar bills plastering the wall behind the bar. As is fitting for a seriously specialized dive bar, there’s no food menu.
If it sounds like the set of a movie, it actually is: the end of Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull was filmed there.
Nancy’s Whiskey Pub, 1 Lispenard Street
Nancy Whiskey Pub gets extra points for continuing to exist in Tribeca, arguably one of the most gentrified places on the planet. Originally a diner, Nancy’s Whiskey Pub found its true calling when it converted into a bar in 1967. It’s a classic Irish dive bar located next to the Canal Street A train: long, narrow, and crammed with memorabilia. And for good measure, it has a shuffleboard.
The bar serves pizza, heroes, and fries, and flame-broiled hamburgers. Famous drinkers include—allegedly—Billy Joel and Scarlett Johansson, according to a long-time bartender. And if you prefer your drinks even cheaper than usual, Happy Hour is Monday to Thursday, 4-7pm.
Rudy’s, 627 Ninth Avenue
A pig statue welcomes you to Rudy’s, where you can grab a booth or a barstool at a place that may or may not have been a speakeasy before turning legit in 1933. If mosaics on the walls arguably take the bar away from its dive bar roots, the free hot dogs bring it right back.
Understandably, Rudy’s is incredibly proud of its history, from its custom-made mahogany bar, to the two German shepherds who used to work as bouncers, to the celebrity drinkers including writer Norman Mailer. “The saddest night I ever had in this bar was when I had to tell Drew Barrymore she couldn’t come back ‘til she was legal,” recalls one bartender. “I hated to do it because she was so nice.”
Milano’s, 51 East Houston Street
Milano’s opened in 1880, and it closes at 4am. It’s the very last of the bars that once served the Bowery’s population of homeless and unemployed—drinkers used to cash government checks there.
The neighborhood has changed, needless to say, but the bar is one of its few points of continuity. Photos of regulars adorn the walls, the ceiling is pressed tin, and the layout makes other dive bars look spacious. One bartender mentioned famous magicians drinking there, but sadly their names have disappeared.
McSorley’s, 15 East 7th Street
“It is equipped with electricity, but the bar is stubbornly illuminated with a pair of gas lamps, which flicker fitfully and throw shadows on the low, cobwebby ceiling each time someone opens the street door. There is no cash register.” So said the New Yorker’s write up of McSorley’s—in 1940. That, by the way, was back before McSorley’s served women.
Reputed to be the oldest bar in NYC, opening in either 1854 or 1862, McSorley’s serves both kinds of beer—light and dark—and still has a sawdust-covered floor. The Health Department forced them to get rid of the cat from the bar and, even more sadly, dust the wishbones hanging on a gas lamp above the bar, said to have been put there in World War I.
If you visit these bars, drink responsibly—although the prices make that hard—and if you want your ride to be more upscale than your drinks, let us help you.