I discovered McSorley’s Old Ale House (Home away From Home – the original name) in the late 1970s, just a year or two after women were finally admitted.
Back in the 1860’s Old John McSorley banned women from his establishment as they were considered distractions from the solemn ritual of sipping ale, munching on raw onion slices, and sliced cheddar cheese.
The First Unisex Restroom in New York City
Not too many years ago the management installed a Ladies Room. And so things are now, much different as I remember those early years.
One of my fondest memories of McSorley’s was when a group of us took our dates out for a few McSorley’s beers.
The real test of the evening came after the second round of beers. About this time, the young lady would ask for the washroom. The answer was… “To the back, the kitchen’s on the right washroom on the left.”
If the young lady returned to the table amused, it was almost assured that the rest of the evening would be most entertaining. Why? There was only one washroom. As far as I know, it was the first unisex bathroom in any restaurant in New York City.
Today, of course, it is separate but equal, more or less.
How Things are Today
On a quiet afternoon when the clientele consists of just a few barflies, I dare any female with a sense of humor to open the gents’ door and wonder, for a moment, at the size of the ceramic urinals.
For those too shy…
Cheese, Crackers, and Onions
For over 150 years, the patrons of McSorley’s (Home away From Home until the sign fell) have been served a light or dark ale and a plate of cheddar cheese, sliced onions, and saltine crackers.
The origins of this culinary combination of flavors and textures can be found in the needs of Old John’s customers. In the beginning, most of them worked as teamsters and packers for the printing businesses that surrounded McSorley’s. The men needed a quick and nourishing bite and a few pints of brew to ease their way through their busy day. The cheese and crackers were the least that Old John could offer. The foaming malt beverage was a necessity… The Onions? Well… you wouldn’t want the teamsters of New York to be thought of as a bunch of drunks!
To this day, the office drones of the area are offered the same refreshment and prophylactic as those first hard-working (weren’t they all?) men and women. Tradition is a beautiful thing to follow, especially for those of us who enjoy a beer or two with lunch… bring on the onions!
The McSorley’s Menu Today
Today there is a slightly more extensive menu that has a rotating menu like the school menus of the 1950s and early 1960s. Monday was Sliced Roast Beef Plate, Tuesday was Roast Beef Hash, Wednesday was Leg of Lamb, Thursday was Shepherd’s Pie, and Friday was always Fish.
The Real Reason to Visit McSorley’s
The real reason for visiting the place has always been the liberal quaffing of mugs of the house beer. They were served and still are served, two at a time in twelve-ounce clear glass beer mugs filled two-thirds of the way with either “Dark” or “Light” beer, topped off with a third of a mug of foam. The “Dark” was, and still is, a black malt lager. The “Light” was and still is, a slightly hopped blond ale.
The exterior of the place hasn’t changed much since the turn of the nineteenth century. The distinctive green façade and two beer kegs guarding the door have been at their posts for the better part of a century.
The sense of walking back into history is enhanced if you visit on a Wednesday afternoon, just before the university session starts, between two and four o’clock in the afternoon. Should it be in the late spring or early fall, you will, weather permitting, enjoy the sunlight as it almost fills the place with a soft glow.
You see, there is no building directly opposite McSorley’s, so the slanted sunlight at that time of the day and that time of the year has inspired many realist painters to capture the scene at McSorley’s time. Some of their work can be seen hanging on the walls in the back room. That room is dominated by a reclining female nude hanging on the right-hand wall as you walk to the back room from the bar area.
The walls, covered with pictures, political posters, and newspaper clippings over a century old, and the rickety chairs and sturdy tables only tell some stories. Behind the bar, on shelves and hanging from the ceiling, artifacts such as the chair Abraham Lincoln sat in after the Lincoln Douglas debate. There is a walking stick that Hemmingway is said to have busted over his knee on a bet.
The Dusty Saga of the Wishbones
And until an over-zealous member of the city health inspectors team told them it was a health hazard that could close them down, there was hanging over the bar a brass rail that had a gas lamp on either end. On that brass rail resided a row of turkey “wishbones” gathering dust from when they were placed there by veterans of “The Great War” on their return from Europe.
Today, denuded of the dust, they are stark reminders of the ease with which history can be erased.
An Old Friend
When I occasionally go into Manhattan and find myself near Astor Place, the chances are good that I’ll drift in to see if anything else has changed. Usually, I can thankfully say that I have not been disappointed most of the time.
In the off-seasons, when school is not in session, between two and four o’clock on Wednesday and Thursday afternoons, McSorley’s settles into an almost solemn quiet. Combined with the relic-covered walls, sawdust on the floor, and the funky scent of time past, the decades fade into the soft beams of sunlight that stream through the windows, leaving a peace that refreshes the soul and gives a deep perspective on the meaning of life.
This place has become an old friend who I don’t visit nearly as often as I should. When I do, all the times spent there, the years of crowded evening entertainments and even more years of peaceful contemplations, seems to distill into a single moment. An autumn afternoon just before the kids return to take over. There is a crisp feel to the air, leather-flight-jacket weather and, I stand at the bar and wait for the bartender to draft two “Darks.”
And then there were the four or five professional interviews I did here while working on free-lance assignments. Every one of those interviews rendered more than traditional formal interviews. They were more like a couple old friends getting together.
A Chat with The Late Matthew “Matty” Maher
(Owner of McSorley’s for as many years as I can remember.)
“I heard the callin’, and that’s how I ended up here.”
Matthew “Matty” Maher, the present owner of McSorley’s, handed a stack of mail to the bartender. It was a late afternoon, and only three other people were standing at the bar. At that time, standing at the bar at McSorley’s on a Wednesday afternoon was my station in life.
On this particular afternoon, as I talked about McSorley’s history with the bartender, Matty stepped up with the mail. Being a social sort and knowing who he was, I had just had to ask him how he ended up at McSorley’s. So here, with only slight exaggeration and interpretation, I present the story as he told me…
“When I was a young lad in Ireland, my father had a farm and a large family. As it was a tradition at the time, my place in line was reserved for the priesthood. So off I was sent to the seminary. After two or three years, I began asking the holy fathers how I would know if I had been called to be a priest. They always replied, “You hear it calling.”
Well, I was a good lad and always kept my ears peeled to hear the calling. So it was one fine summer day when I was on the way home from seminary school to me father’s farm. Now his farm was situated so that the road bordered part of it, and the other part was bordered by a fine small river. Now every summer, the tinkers would come into town, and they would camp alongside the river. And so it was this fine summer afternoon that I got down from the bus. I began walking towards Home. It seems that at this very same time, a group of young ladies traveling with the tinkers had decided to bathe in the river. Now that was what I heard… I heard their beautiful voices and laughter, and I knew at once precisely what it was… it was a calling, a powerful calling. And that’s why I ended up here. You see, it just wasn’t in me to be a priest.”
My first time in McSorley’s was in the summer of ’78. Even then it seemed like a relic of a by-gone time. The legal drinking age at the time was 18, which was a revelation for a nineteen year old who’d just moved to New York from California (where I’d not have been able to order a beer till I was 21), and it became one of my watering holes during the years I lived in the Lower East Side. Nice to see it’s still there, even now that my own time in NYC is a by-gone era, too.
Thanks for the comment. I’m looking forward to chatting.
I would sometimes share a drink or two with Matty at Molly Malone. Got to know him fairly well over the years. One time he told me how neighbors would complain about kids coming out of his bar and throwing up and how he (so he told me) would take them around and show him vomit that could have come from his place and vomit that obviously did not.