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It’s no secret that the New York City dive bar is an endangered species, but there’s one in South Street Seaport that is still going strong despite some dramatic changes just a few blocks away. While so many of the old shot-and-a-beer standbys have shuttered throughout the city, Jeremy’s Ale House has simply moved around the neighborhood throughout its 40-year tenure. At each location, they keep on with what works—namely serving up massive quantities of cold beer in enormous styrofoam cups, frying up fresh seafood, and hanging bras from the ceiling.
Jeremy’s is proud of its longevity—in fact, when you walk in, one of the first things you’ll see is a whole wall proclaiming the joint to be “the last of the great NYC dive bars.” It’s dark and cavernous, a few metal steps up from the sidewalk in a building that was clearly once a warehouse. For decades, Jeremy Sr. poured frosty beers and eye openers for the men who worked the ships and docks that gave the neighborhood its name. Now Jeremy Jr. and a team of loyal, long-time bartenders serve up a clientele that has evolved as much as lower Manhattan.
Milton is one of the old-timers who’s been with Jeremy’s for decades. He has a knack for impressing his patrons—so much so that someone scrawled on the ceiling tiles in Sharpie that he’s a hottie. The last time I was in the city, he leaned on the bar, telling me about how things have changed. These days you won’t see on-duty firefighters and cops having a tipple on their breaks, or sanitation and transit workers downing a beer in their uniforms at the end of the day. There are too many regulations in place for that old song and dance, too many eyes peeled for anyone bending the rules.
Even though it was a little early for lunch, a couple polo-shirt sporting office workers drifted in for burgers ahead of the crowd. Later, the bar stools are warmed, according to Milton, by “young kids spending money.” But 30 years ago, young people didn’t have much interest in Jeremy’s. The teens and 20-somethings who came of age in what were then fairly new complexes like Southbridge Towers preferred to hang out in Washington Square Park and near the Village, not down by the docks.
My second cousin Ruth Williams was one of those hippies, and she recalls going to Jeremy’s on only one occasion, dragged along by a determined girlfriend. "I'm pretty sure they had exotic meats on the menu,” she told me. “They had a kangaroo burger." Milton confirms this—sort of. It was ostrich meat, not kangaroo. “It was big that year,” he says.
There are no exotic meats on the menu now, however. You can soak up your Brooklyn Lager with a basket of fried clams or calamari, maybe some tater tots or the chili nachos. The cook, Pupu, has been at Jeremy’s for 20 years, and he calls out orders for Jeremy’s classic chowders—“one blanco, one roja.” They come in styrofoam cups like the beers. This is a real dive without frills. The bathroom is cramped, tucked behind the kitchen. A profusion of massive bras dangle from the ceiling, traded by Jeremy’s female customers in exchange for shots. Every time the bar has moved to a new location, they start the collection all over again.
“In the beginning, it was ties,” Milton tells me. They’d get them from the Wall Street suits when they’d come up from the trading floor. In that context, all the over-the-shoulder boulder holders are just further evidence of the way Seaport is changing. It took a while for New York’s gentrification to reach its oldest district. But the condos and office blocks are going up here, too.
Down the cobblestone street from Jeremy’s are newer, more upscale joints. A Momofuku outpost is on its way, along with a bougie food court. In the summer you can drink frosé at Fulton Market just a stone’s throw from where my grandmother and great aunt used to shop at the old fish market, long before it moved to Hunts Point. It’s a different scene for sure than when the neighborhood was less residential, sprinkled with working class watering holes.
Through it all, Jeremy’s abides. Not only has the eponymous founder kept his flagship bar going, he opened a second location in Freeport. Once that was in full swing, he was able to relax into semi-retirement in Florida. He works a circuit up and down the eastern seaboard—spending a few weeks amongst the palm trees before he’s back in the Big Apple, behind the bar.
Meanwhile, this last of the great NYC dive bars continues to outlast the competition. Across the way, craft tap room BIN No. 220 came and went. Now Gen Y revelers, the descendants of those Village-bound hippies, bounce between Jeremy’s and Cowgirl Seahorse and FiDi joints like Iron Horse and Dead Rabbit on their Friday bar crawls. My cousins, Ruth’s kids, and I will grab a shot and a house brew on our way to snap a selfie with the Brooklyn Bridge. And perhaps that’s Jeremy’s secret—what keeps it so in sync with the rest of Seaport. In New York City, at some point, everything old is new again.
Meghan O'Dea is a writer and perpetual traveler who spends her spare time eating and drinking her way through new places. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Eater, Uproxx, The Rumpus, Manifest Station, and others. She recently flew the coop from Tennessee to Portland, Oregon.