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Anyone who has ever had a favorite eatery shut down knows how intrinsically these establishments can be linked to our own history: be it your favorite bar in college, the place where you got engaged, or your go-to comfort spot establishment. In a broader context than our own lives, some locales have been tied to major movements that have had impacts far beyond their immediate neighborhoods, too.
“When you look at New York City, restaurants and bars are more than just places to drink, they’re really anchors of our community, and they take on social and historical significance,” said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance.
Here are five still-operating New York City establishments that you’ll want to get to know.
21, which has evolved into a bar room, a restaurant, and private event space since opening in 1930, is one of the most iconic restaurants in New York and a favored haunt of many Hollywood celebrities. Its roots stretch back to the Prohibition era, when it became a popular speakeasy (and a secret wine cellar with a revolving bar that kept booze out of the authority’s view). Though famous folks like Frank Sinatra, George Steinbrenner, and Joan Rivers frequented the restaurant for its classic American fare, like its famed chicken hash or 21 burger, the establishment has also had an undeniable impact on how we drink.
“When you look at this country during Prohibition time, the 21 Club was a significant restaurant and speakeasy that people went to, and post-Prohibition it’s had celebrities and business people going to the restaurant to kind of capture a piece of history,” said Rigie, adding that people who have worked there have spawned interest in the cocktail movement that has swept the nation in recent years. “Almost every restaurant you go into has a craft cocktail menu, and even chain restaurants [do now, too],” he said. “People care about the quality of the product and that’s true for cuisine and cocktails. It’s an art, and what [people have been] able to do with some of these cocktails, many of them are Prohibition-era cocktails, so you’re bringing back drinks that were consumed many years ago.” Have a mixologist at your favorite hometown bar? You can thank 21 Club for keeping the tradition of cocktails alive through the years.
How many bars do you know that have been involved in precedent-setting court cases? Well, McSorley’s, the oldest continually operating bar in New York, is one of them. “It has survived over a century [and] a half in a city where most pubs are lucky if they last a decade, which I think is the biggest continued draw of the bar,” said Maeve McNamara, former bartender and daughter of current owner Mathew Maher. “New York changes so quickly, and so I think people are drawn to something that has been open for so long and hasn't changed very much. Continuity of that degree is really uncommon, and I think that is what makes us special and so dear to our customers' hearts.” McSorley’s hasn’t just been a watering hole for celebrities (though of course, there’s that, too, with everyone from Abraham Lincoln to Justin Bieber stopping by), but it has also been the subject of various creative works over the years, including poetry by E.E. Cummings, paintings by John Sloan, in addition to books and plays.
But back to that court case. Many people know the bar, McNamara said, because up until August 1970 it was a men-only establishment. Women were eventually allowed in after the National Organization of Women sued claiming that the discrimination was a violation of constitutional rights, and won. The bar now welcomes all patrons (a mix of college students, tourists, and colorful regulars) that come in to toast with either house light and dark ale (no hard liquor here) and eat hearty pub fare like corned beef hash or a cheese platter (consisting of New York cheddar, raw onions, and saltine crackers) at communal tables. Paul Freedman, author of “Ten Restaurants That Changed America,” said one major category of restaurants that have a historical impact are simply those known as survivors. McSorley’s among them. “It’s so unchanged that is has become everyone’s idea of what a pub should be,” he said.
There are plenty of restaurants throughout the country that have hosted modern day presidents, but few that have done so for the first. Fraunces Tavern is one of them. “Not only was it a favorite watering hole for founding fathers like Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and George Washington, but most notably, it is where George Washington bade farewell to his officers on Dec. 4, 1783 following the end of the American Revolution,” said Jessica B. Phillips, executive director of the Fraunces Tavern Museum. Fraunces, which still serves drinks and food, now also provides the community with an opportunity to explore the American Revolutionary era at its adjacent museum.
Since its Revolutionary War days, Fraunces has expanded, with its museum and tavern occupying five separate buildings on Fraunces Tavern block, a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places, with each room’s decor keeping with the style of the building, said Amy King, marketing coordinator for the restaurant. Meanwhile, the Porterhouse Bar at Fraunces Tavern boasts an impressive collection of craft beers, Fraunces’ whiskey bar has a specialty collection of over 260 world whiskeys, and its hideout bar serves as a sports bar. “While we still have some very traditional tavern menu items, our menus have changed over the years to suit modern tastes and trends while still staying true to the tavern's roots,” King said. Guests from near and far can nosh on the restaurant’s slow-roasted chicken pot pie, traditional fish and chips, or filet mignon on a stone at the place where George Washington once hung his hat.
It might not sound like ordering a drink would create history, but that’s exactly what happened at Julius’ in 1966. Before the famed riots at the Stonewall Inn, which kicked off the gay rights movement, the gay rights group Mattachine Society organized a “Sip-In” at Julius’ to challenge an unwritten rule that allowed bars to refuse service to LGBT patrons, said Ken Lustbader, co-director, NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project. “The bar has been around the mid 19th century...Not only is it historical in that it’s been serving food for so long and that the interior is intact from what we believe is right after Prohibition, but it’s the site of an important LGBT sort of civil disobedience over 50 years ago,” Lustbader said. “The Sip-In was one of the earliest public displays of LGBT civil unrest...At the time if you were LGBT and went into a bar and said you were a homosexual you could be refused service because LGBT people were considered disorderly.” The Mattachine Society went into Julius’, ordered drinks after saying they were gay with the press in tow to shed light on the unfair practice. This “helped pave the way” for diminishing harassment for LGBT individuals at bars and restaurants, Lustbader said.
Since then, Julius’ has undergone a gradual transformation, going from a sports bar in the 1940s and 1950s, to a gay bar in the late 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, Lustbader said. Now, it’s the longest continually operating gay bar in New York City and is a gathering place for a large swath of people—diverse in ages and attracting local people and visitors. “People really recognize it as a safe place and has a wonderful patina of history that recognizes its LGBT past but is also very current,” Lustbader said.
If you enjoy fine dining, you can thank Delmonico’s for creating the concept. The eatery, which opened its doors in 1837, was largely thought to be the finest restaurant in the United States in its early days, said Freedman, and was known for revolutionizing New York’s financial district and making it a destination for gourmands. “It defined fine dining more than any other restaurant” Freedman said, adding that it prioritized service in addition to quality in a way that has set the bar for other fine dining establishments, and is responsible for being the first to serve up some American staples like Baked Alaska and Lobster Newburg (classics that are still on the menu today).
What’s more, in April 1868, Delmonico’s took the bold step to host a women-only luncheon organized by The Sorosis Club, the first U.S. organization dedicated to raising women’s status, at a time when women couldn’t be served at a restaurant without a male companion. This unprecedented event paved the way for women’s clubs across the country, with its 150th anniversary set for this year.
Kelsey Butler is a writer and editor based in New Jersey. She has written for a number of health and lifestyle publications, including Men's Health, Women's Health, Brides, and NBC News Better. Hot sauce, black coffee, and bacon make up 50% of her diet.