McSorley's Alehouse, New York City

If ever you find yourself in New York City with a hankering for bad service, disgusting surroundings, and surprisingly decent beer, go to McSorley’s Ale House in Greenwich Village. The outside is made up to look like an old-world pub from the darker days of the city, which is appropriate because it is an old-world pub from the darker days of the city. It was an all male establishment until the mid seventies, when my mother and the women’s rights movement busted in and messed up their chauvinist ideals. With the exception of the addition of a second bathroom, this by no means changed the ambiance of the place.

At first glance the outside looks fairly respectable. Upon entering however, you realize (all too late) what you’ve gotten yourself into. People notice different things first. I noticed the sawdust that covered the floor, acting much like kitty litter to sop up the spilled drink, vomit, and blood. Others might notice the deeply scarred wooden tables that are proudly touted as “original.” The markings on these surfaces are so layered that they look like a predecessor to cuneiform or a language long ago lost to modern man.

Perhaps not the worst, but certainly the most memorable item in the establishment would be the chandelier that hangs over the bar itself. The light that comes from its yellowed globes is negligible at best, the glass coated by generations (literally) of smoke and human grease. Hanging off the arms of the fixture itself are wishbones. Turkey wishbones. Unwashed, festering, meat remnants still clinging desperately to the dried out bones, dust and mold growing on them like stalagmites. Dozens of them, hanging from every hook on the chandelier possible, swinging over the drinks of the patrons below.

My parents wax poetic about the “old hangout” from their college days, which at the time of this writing was thirty years prior. When they went back recently, they were thrilled to find that nothing had changed, except perhaps that there was a half an inch or two more dust and grime coating the pictures that covered every inch of the walls.

There are only two beers at McSorley’s, light and dark. I don’t know what will happen to you if you try to order anything else, so I’m not responsible if you try. They are a house brew, which is surprisingly good given the dive-ambiance. Ordering drinks at this pub takes a little getting used to. If you order “one” at the bar, the tender turns and grabs two mugs, grasping them by the handle in one hand (no Bud Light pints here), and runs them unceremoniously under the tap, which seems to be perpetually running. He does not wait until the head drops, but plunks the two mugs in front of you, usually only half filled with actual beer, the rest a foamy but tasty head. With a scowl at your obviously out-of-towner smell, he’ll turn away from you and probably ignore you for the next half hour.

For an impressive display, go with five or six friends and order a round for everyone at the table. The barkeep will fill and carry ten to fifteen mugs, all gripped in his big meaty hands by the handles Oktoberfest-style and clunk them down on the table so loudly that you’ll jump at the noise, even if you see him coming.

The menu at McSorley’s is limited at best, but I suggest the local delicacy, a cheese platter with McSorley’s famous hot mustard. This arrives at your table on a paper plate with a plastic knife, a handful of sliced cheese squares, a plastic Dixie-cup with the hot mustard squirted into it, some raw onion slices, and a sleeve of Saltines sometimes (but not always) sealed. It may not look like much, but don’t let the macho-chauvinist surroundings make you headstrong. The hot mustard is hot. The cheese is simply a vehicle for the mustard, and doesn’t do much to cut the heat from the mustard. Obviously the only way to make the flames subside is to order another round, if the bartender can stand to see your ugly mug again.