The Genuine Article – A Guide to The Best Irish Bars in New York City
Thankfully, not all Irish bars in New York City (and, believe it or not, there are up to 2,000 that claim to be so) make you want to turn green. Some bars, however, prefer not to display obvious trappings of what tourists think an Irish bar might look like.
These tend to hark back to the local-based or community-driven pubs that most if not all Irish people recognise as genuine. All of the bars mentioned here are of that nature, so the next time you’re in NYC, why not pay them a visit, and tell the bartender that TheTaste.ie sent you?
Named after an Irish gang from the ‘Gangs of New York’ era, Dead Rabbit is located in the city’s Financial District in a building constructed in 1828. It opened in 2013, set up by two bar managers from Belfast, Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry (“two innocent guys with just a headful of dreams and stardust in their eyes,” it says on the Dead Rabbit website).
There is something about this place that draws you in, and it isn’t just the ground-floor Taproom, which (with no small boast) provides what many claim is the best Guinness in the city. Aside from the alcohol (with almost 200 different brands, Dead Rabbit houses the largest collection of Irish whiskey in the USA, including its own brand), there is a sharp sense of history here. The staff are quick on their feet and have clearly been guided by experts.
Upstairs is the ‘lounge’ section (called The Parlour, aka the Cocktail Cathedral), which offers almost three dozen Prohibition Era-style cocktails with evocative names such as Hush Money and Switchblade, as well as, quite likely, NYC’s best Irish coffee. It’s little surprise that a few years after it opened, Dead Rabbit nabbed the ‘World’s Best Bar’ Award by Drinks International Magazine.
You’ll find Dead Rabbit on 30 Water Street.
Irish people who steer clear of ‘Oirish’ pubs need not be put off by the name of this neighbourhood one. Paddy Reilly’s Music Bar is no ersatz hostelry. Opened in Midtown East over 30 years ago by Cavan’s Steve Duggan and Dublin ballad singer Paddy Reilly, it was initially pitched as the world’s first and only all-draught Guinness bar.
While it’s probably best to take that claim with a pinch or two of snuff, there was certainly a time when the clientele wasn’t too fussy about drinking anything else. Changing times and demand for variety, however, have broadened the alcohol spectrum.
The potential downside (for some) is that little has changed since the bar first opened, so if you’re expecting a contemporary upgrade to the ‘Irish’ experience, then you might need to look elsewhere. If you’re feeling a bit homesick for the real thing, however, then this place is the business: proper characters, Irish accents from Donegal to Cork, Galway to Dublin, and all points in-between, and (if it’s your thing) the longest ‘Happy Hour’ in Manhattan – 11am-7pm. Noting the co-founder, also, this is the place for a music seven nights a week.
You’ll find Paddy Reilly’s Music Bar on 519 2nd Avenue (29th Street).
Not many pubs can validly boast they’re the oldest in the town/city/country, but McSorley’s Old Ale House most certainly can. Established in 1854, McSorley’s has never gone out of business, and while longevity is something to be proud of, surely the bar’s best claim to fame (or notoriety) is that both Abraham Lincoln and John Lennon have been valued customers. It began as an Irish working man’s pub and continued that way for almost one hundred years until a New Yorker magazine profile and a Life magazine photographic feature during the 1940s made the wider population aware of it.
From that decade onwards, McSorleys’ renown quickly filtered through the city and beyond as the place to not only rest your bones but also to view hundreds of artifacts of and from an Ireland that no longer exists (there are also, it is said, shackles worn by a prisoner during the time of the US Civil War).
Unusually for such a well-known bar, it serves only two beer: light and dark ale. Ordering isn’t a huge problem, then, but trying to find a seat is. Full of the kind of natural charm you’d expect from such an old building, it was listed as a historic landmark by the NYC Landmarks Preservation Committee six years ago. It has sawdust on the floors. Naturally.
You’ll find McSorley’s Old Ale House on 15 East 7th Street.
Anyone from Ireland will know how this bar got its name (just in case you’re not familiar with the term, a ‘scratcher’ is a nickname for ‘bed’; if you’re on the ‘scratch’, it means you’re unemployed, so the two terms aren’t necessarily unconnected). Irish monikers aside, that’s as much of the Irish vibe as you’ll get here, for The Scratcher wears its Irishness lightly.
The basement bar was once described as a “subterranean den”, but it has a charm all of its own easily attributed to highly agreeable staff, really good beer, frothy pints of Guinness, no shamrocks and definitely no ‘Oirish’ kitsch. Generally frequented by a young, hip crowd from nearby New York University and boho locals, this place engages with the cool side of your brain.
There’s a music connection in that various Irish singer-songwriters and music acts call in and play a tune or two (including the likes of Mark Geary, Glen Hansard, and August Wells), while every Sunday there is organised live music (aka The Scratcher Sessions). One sentence of advice: this bar is so good, so relaxed, and so free of the usual Irish shenanigans that you might just stay on until its official closing time of 4am.
You’ll find The Scratcher on 209 E 5th St, between 2nd Avenue and The Bowery.
Along with The Scratcher, the brilliantly-named St Dymphna’s is something of a stopping off point for the hip/on-trend customer. Located on the border between Alphabet City and East Village (and close to Tompkins Square Park), there’s something quite unique about this bar.
Named after the patron saint of mental disorders, it tends to attract a slightly older, quite cool crowd than those who frequent The Scratcher, and is a known popular place for those who work in or hang out in the creative arts areas of writing, film, and music. In other words, the bar can occasionally serve drinks to extremely recognisable people. The chilled atmosphere is undoubtedly one of the reasons for their presence, but don’t forget that St Dymphna’s is also highly regarded for its food (one of its specialties is its all-day Irish breakfast).
A rarity in New York City, this is a genuine neighbourhood bar – it says yes to good beer, good conversation, and good people, and no to shamrocks, shillelaghs, leprechauns, drunken parties, and chancers. It is also a vital East Village landmark. Anyone passing through NYC on their lonesome or looking for a good place to meet their mates? Do the right thing and make a beeline for St Dymphna’s.
You’ll find St. Dymphna’s 118 St Mark’s Place, between 1st Avenue and Avenue A.
Tony Clayton-Lea is a freelance pop culture/travel writer. His primary aim when traveling is to avoid obvious tourist traps, to make sure an intriguing laneway never goes undiscovered, and to unearth the perfect place for people watching.
Stay up-to-date with Tony’s writing by visiting his website, tonyclaytonlea.com.