I'm an Irish American who visited the oldest Irish tavern in New York City for the first time. Here are 10 things that surprised me.
Ahead of St. Patrick's Day, I visited McSorley's Old Ale House, which was established in 1854.
I was surprised by the inexpensive prices and the quality of the food.
I was also surprised by how it made me feel pride as an Irish American.
I've lived in New York City for almost four years, but I have never been to McSorley's, the oldest Irish pub in the city.
Not only is McSorley's the most historic Irish tavern in New York, it's also often called the oldest Irish tavern in America that's still in operation today. Established in 1854, McSorley's is celebrating its 169th anniversary this year, and it is certainly the place to go around St. Patrick's Day.
Though famous, McSorley's hasn't always been on the right side of history. According to The New York Times, women have only been allowed inside the bar since 1970, when two members of the National Organization for Women sued the bar for violating the equal-protection ordinance of the 14th Amendment. There were also no female bartenders until the mid-'90s.
Ahead of St. Patrick's Day, I wanted to visit the bar given its rich history and connection to my heritage. My grandparents were first-generation Irish immigrants who later moved to England. That fact, in combination with my very Irish name, makes me proud of the close connection to my heritage.
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed my experience at McSorley's. Here are some things that might surprise you about the oldest Irish bar in the country if you choose to visit yourself.
I was surprised by McSorley's location in a very modern section of the East Village.
While I expected to find McSorley's on a quaint cobblestone street given its history, it's located in a built-up section of the East Village on East 7th Street, by Astor Place.
I actually lived around the corner for a semester in college, and, in my opinion, this part of the East Village has very little old-world charm thanks to its high-rise buildings, businesses, and chain restaurants, despite being just a stone's throw away from one of the most historic establishments in the city.
However, when the ale house was founded by Irish immigrant John McSorley in the 1850s, this was a prime location, close to a transportation hub for horse carriages and a busy market, Insider previously reported.
McSorley's is cash-only, which I learned when I arrived. However, you'll find an ATM right out front.
It's pretty standard at any cash-only bar or restaurant in New York City to find an ATM either inside or just outside the door.
I was pleased that they had an ATM available so close by, but I couldn't spy any signs inside that made it immediately apparent it was cash-only — I didn't suss it out until I saw everyone else paying in cash.
I expected to find a lot of Irish pub food, and I did, but McSorley's also had distinctly American foods like hot dogs and hamburgers.
The menu at McSorley's is limited, but they had quite a few fan-favorite menu items, from burgers and a fried-chicken sandwich to more traditional items like corned-beef hash and chili.
I was also surprised by how low the prices were at McSorley's compared to what I usually pay in New York City. I ordered a hamburger and fries for $10, and two beers for $7.
I was overall pleasantly surprised by the burger at McSorley's, but I wish the cheese had been more melted.
When I visited McSorley's, the bar was teeming with people and there were very few places to sit. I'm always a little hesitant about ordering bar food – you just never know what you're going to get, especially from places popular with tourists — but I was surprised by how much I liked the burger.
The beef patty was juicy and decently large, while the onions and tomatoes tasted very fresh. The fries were also piping hot when I received them and deliciously crispy. The only downside in my opinion was that the cheese on the cheeseburger wasn't melted on the patty.
However, for $10, I was pleased with my dinner.
McSorley's has only two options for alcoholic drinks — light or dark beer — and they serve two at a time per person, which definitely surprised me.
I paid $7 for two beers, a light and a dark ale, which I was surprised by. I'm not a huge beer drinker, but even that seemed pretty inexpensive to me.
The beer prices have crept up over the years, of course. When Insider's Sarah Jacobs visited in 2017, the beer cost $5.50. She noted that the beer cost only a dime per mug in 1940, and in 1966, two of the half-pints cost 35 cents.
Other guests also appeared to be surprised by their orders. When one guest ordered a light and a dark beer for himself and someone else, they seemed surprised when they were each handed two beers. The bartender then explained that they always give people two beers each. The beers are much smaller than your average pint. According to Eater, each mug holds roughly 6 ounces per glass — a US pint holds 16 ounces — which makes each drink easier to finish and carry around the bar.
I enjoyed both the light and the dark ale, though I preferred the light, and thought they went down smoothly. I could see why someone would want two at a time.
Part of the charm of McSorley's, in addition to the low prices, is the lack of choice. In a city like New York, I'm accustomed to lengthy drink menus with steep prices. I actually enjoyed the lack of choice, which made ordering fast and simple.
I was also surprised by just how much history was crammed onto every inch of the walls.
Almost every inch of the walls was adorned with old photos, newspaper clippings, pictures of Irish American presidents, and festive St. Patrick's Day decorations. A large flag hung behind the bar with the number 169 on it — the number of years the bar has been open.
The bar is also home to a few other historical mementos like Houdini's handcuffs and World War I-era wishbones dangling from a gas lamp above the bar. US Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, and Theodore Roosevelt also reportedly stopped by McSorley's, adding to the joint's historic reputation.
I could have spent hours looking at every piece of art and history, and it made me feel a sense of pride in my Irish heritage. It felt as if I were in a living time capsule, surrounded by people who were there for a great time in one of the most historic spots in the city.
The bartender who served me was Irish, making for an even more authentic experience.
Despite how busy the bar was, I was pleasantly surprised by the friendly and fast service I received from the bar staff and bouncer. If you're looking for an immersive experience, you can't feel much closer to Ireland anywhere other than McSorley's.
If you're unable to grab a spot inside, the restaurant has plenty of outdoor seating.
I wasn't surprised that a few days before St. Patrick's Day, finding a spot to sit inside the restaurant at prime time was a little difficult. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that as the night went on and it turned 8 o'clock, tables started to open up.
There was also a large outdoor dining area set up on the street outside, so finding a place to sit on busy days like St. Patrick's Day shouldn't be completely out of the question.
Overall, I was most surprised by how visiting McSorley's made me feel connected to my Irish roots.
Before going to McSorley's myself, I half-expected to find a rowdy group of drunk people dressed up for St. Patrick's Day and drinking overpriced beer. What I experienced couldn't have been more different than my expectations.
There was a strong sense of pride and camaraderie in the bar, with customers happy to let others through to the bar, introduce themselves, or tip their Irish bartenders. I felt more connected to my own Irish heritage than I have in years, and proud of the role Irish people have played throughout history in this country and in New York City.
As I made my way home, I thought to myself that I hope McSorley's will be open for another 169 years. All I know is that they've made a returning customer out of me.
Correction: March 20, 2023 — An earlier version of this story misstated the size of beers served at McSorley's. The beers are roughly 6 ounces each, served two at a time; they aren't pints.
Read the original article on Insider