The author of The Birthplace Book explores America's historic bars and the places where some of the USA's iconic cocktails got their start.
You've been running all over the city (or the country), visiting museums, landmarks, tourist traps, souvenir stands, zoos, aquariums—after all, you're on a relaxing vacation, right? Well, for those moments on the road when you'd love to do nothing more than slow down, relax and curl up with someone special over a good strong drink, why not make it something memorable—or even historic? There are some well–oiled taverns, pubs and saloons still left in the U.S. that are steeped in history; the perfect places to begin (or end) a vacation pub–crawl. So if you have a little time, this round of places is on me.
Imbibing in Beantown.
You can barely sneeze in Boston without hitting at least three historic landmarks, so it only makes sense that no less than three joints there make the claim as being in "The oldest tavern in the United States." Thankfully, they're all relatively close to each, and they're located in one of the more historic parts of the city (down by venerable Faneuil Hall).
First up is The Green Dragon Tavern. It was established way back in 1657, though the original building no longer exists. A popular meeting place for many Boston Revolutionaries, no less than Daniel Webster called it the "headquarters of the American Revolution." Paul Revere, John Hancock—they all spent many "happy" hours at the Green Dragon and today there's also live music and good bar food in an authentic Irish pub ambiance.
11 Marshall St
The Bell in Hand opened in 1795 and today it sits in a charming old building that dates back to 1844. Opened by the legendary "Old Jimmy" Wilson, the last town crier of Boston, this place long has held the reputation of serving the best ale in Boston. Today, you can still enjoy the Bell in Hand Ale when you visit, along with a substantial, traditional pub menu.
45 Union St
Ye Old Union Oyster House was opened in 1826 and unlike its counterpart historic establishments in Boston, it's located in the same place it was the year it opened. Personally, this is one of my favorite places to eat in Boston, as they serve some of the best, traditional seafood dishes in town. Oysters, fried clams, scrod—I know we're focused on drinking right now but I suggest you leave room for food here, too. The bar is a well–oiled classic; a time machine of sorts that will transport you back to the days of tea parties and "One if by land…" Additional trivia: The toothpick was first used in the United States at the Union Oyster House. As well, the Kennedy Clan has patronized the Union Oyster House for years. In fact, J.F.K.'s favorite booth, "The Kennedy Booth," is marked with a plaque.
41 Union St
Toasts of the Town—New York City
Pete's Tavern has been open since 1864 and still looks exactly as it did when literary history was made here in 1902. That year, its most celebrated regular, the writer O. Henry, wrote the classic The Gift of the Magi at his favorite booth by the front doors (which is marked today). During prohibition, when selling alcohol was illegal, Pete's continued to operate disguised as a flower shop. Today, Pete's is an official historical landmark and the longest continuously operating bar and restaurant in New York City. Pete's Tavern also continues to serve (in addition to good Italian food) its highly prized 1864 Original House Ale.
129 East 18th Street
New York, New York
There are many who consider McSorley's to be America's most famous bar. After all, where else did Abraham Lincoln and John Lennon both imbibe? As McSorley's itself describes, "Woody Guthrie inspired the union movement from a table in the front — guitar in hand, while civil rights attorney's Faith Seidenberg and Karen DeCrow had to take their case to the Supreme Court to gain access. Women were finally allowed access to McSorley's in 1970! So belly up. Enter the sawdust–strewn floors and history–patched walls for a trip back through time. Share the McSorley's experience with the spirits of 150 years!" Today a lot of interesting historical paraphernalia can be found in the bar, including Houdini's handcuffs, which are connected to the bar rail. And look for the numerous wishbones hanging above the bar. Legend has it they were hung there by soldiers headed off for World War I and when they came they were to take them down— so those bones remaining today represent the men who never made it back.
15 East 7th Street
New York, NY
The City of Brotherly Booze.
Opened in 1860, McGillin's Olde Ale House is the oldest continuously operational tavern in Philadelphia. It was officially called The Bell in Hand when it first opened back in 1860 in the home of Irish immigrant William "Pa" McGillin, the proprietor of the establishment. Today, the cherished pub is home to a famous and growing collection of historical Philadelphia memorabilia including a catalog of every Liquor License held by the pub since 1871, saved by William McGillin and each owner after that. The original "Bell in Hand" sign that William "Pa" McGillin designed for the pub is also in the collection.
Dillinger's Town, Chicago
Obviously there are many legendary drinking establishments in the Windy City, but when in town why not visit the bar where regular John Dillinger would often buy a round for the house? John Barleycorn's was built in 1890 and originally owned and operated by an Irish immigrant who moonlighted as a Chicago cop. And okay, maybe it's been dolled up somewhat today what with the classical music that plays along with the 5,000 art slides that continuously dissolve across three screens—but it's still in its original place, and just two blocks from the Biograph Theater where the aforementioned Dillinger was gunned down. The bar offers 32 beers on tap, the menu is good (great hamburgers) and there are a couple of other locations in the city.
658 West Belden Avenue
Chicago, IL 60614
Jack London's Square in Oakland
Heinold's First and Last Chance Saloon is where the writer Jack London hung out, as if you need any other reason to visit. Opened in 1883, this historic bar was originally called J.M. Heinold's Saloon and is built from the timbers of old whaling ships. Considered to be Jack London's favorite saloon, he would sit here and listen to sailors' tales, many of which would later appear in his books. London wrote at a favorite table, and Heinold and the saloon are referred to 17 times in his novels John Barleycorn and The Tales of the Fish Patrol. (Other former customers of the tiny saloon include President William Howard Taft and writers Robert Louis Stevenson, Robert Service, Ambrose Bierce and Erskine Caldwell.) Adjacent to the saloon is a portion of London's 1898 Yukon cabin, which was moved here to Oakland in 1969.
56 Jack London Square
All photos on this page © Chris Epting except where indicated.
Books from the Author: