15 of New York’s Best Old-School Restaurants and Bars
It’s no secret that New York City has one heck of a food and drink scene. But while a ton of buzzy websites track the current hotspots, it can be hard for a visitor to get a feel for the old-school heart of the city.
But there are hundreds, if not thousands, of worthwhile historic places dotting the five boroughs. Here’s a snapshot of a few wonderful ones—from elegant French restaurants to diners with malted milkshakes, Chinese dim sum parlors to turn-of-the-century saloons.
Nom Wah Tea Parlor
The Chinese food presence in New York is excellent. Various provinces are represented around the boroughs, in Chinatowns from Flushing, Queens to Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Manhattan’s Nom Wah, though—the oldest dim sum parlor in the city—is beloved by Ruth Reichl, among others, for its dumplings, pork rolls, almond cookies, and extensive menu. It’s approaching its centennial, which is remarkable given the changes its neighborhood has experienced over the years.
Grand Central Oyster Bar
Opened in 1913, the Grand Central Oyster Bar is a marvel to behold. With its vaulted, tiled ceilings, fresh seafood, and multiple little bars—including one behind swinging saloon doors—it’s a delight. You might see suited men at one bar kicking back whiskey before hopping on the Westchester trains, letting their wives’ calls go straight to voicemail. At another, locals and tourists sit shoulder-to-shoulder over icy plates of super-fresh clams and oysters. This place is straight out of Mad Men—in the very best way.
The Brooklyn Inn
This legendary neighborhood bar is ideal for a pint of Guinness on a lazy Sunday afternoon. The Brooklyn Inn is gorgeous to look at, with high ceilings, huge windows, and long, dark oak bar that dates to the 1870s. Cocktails here aren’t fancy, but the neighborhood gossip is great. It’s a fine place to feel like a local over a copy of the newspaper or kick around over a game of pool in the back room.
Lexington Candy Shop
This 1925 soda shop is still a delight, with thick malteds (that’s a vanilla malted milkshake) served in tall glasses with the metal canister right alongside, for DIY refills. It’s in the heart of the Upper East Side, and if you’re up here for shopping, this is a killer place for stacks of pancakes, tuna melts, or people-watching.
Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop
“Raising New York’s cholesterol since 1929” trumpets the website for this old-school Jewish deli in the Flatiron District. You’re here for tuna melts, reubens, egg creams, and lime rickeys. Eisenberg’s is fast, busy, cheap, and frills-free—an excellent stop for those in a rush between outings.
Does it have the best burger, in a town saturated with fancy $18 burgers? No. Is it damn tasty, especially if you order it rare? Yes. The $10 bacon-topped burgers and well-priced pints at Corner Bistro—try a McSorley Dark for three bucks—have been making customers happy since the middle of the 20th century. It can get crowded, it’s chatty, it’s dark, and the service is quick. It’s a fine place to grab an early bite before wandering the West Village on a pretty evening—and if you’re in Long Island City, Queens, there’s an outpost there, too.
Old Town Bar
Union Square remains a notoriously difficult place to grab a cheap bite or drink. Thank goodness for the Old Town Bar, which has been serving since 1892, and became a speakeasy during prohibition. Featuring beautiful tiled floors, 16-foot-high ceilings, what it claims are “New York’s oldest active dumbwaiters,” and a plethora of sassy regulars, it’s a wonderful happy hour stop for beer and bar food.
If you’re lucky enough to be dining at this 1885 steakhouse, don’t forget to look up! Thousands of clay pipes—smoked by luminaries such as Teddy Roosevelt, Babe Ruth, and Albert Einstein—line the ceiling. Once upon a time, a “pipe warden” would fetch your pipe and bring it to you so you could smoke as you tucked into mutton chops. Nowadays, regulars come for fiercely delicious steaks and a stop in the bar for pints, wine, and whiskey, neat.
If you’re the sort of person who wants to get dressed up, dine among gorgeous flowers and feast on elegant French fare, go to La Grenouille. This critics’ darling has been around for more than 50 years, and has all the caviar, foie gras, lobster, and soufflés your heart could desire. Known for its Dover sole, quenelles of pike, and extraordinary Old World wine list, La Grenouille even has deals during 5pm-6pm pre-theater window and late at night. (How very French!)
Expensive? Yes. Extraordinary? Yes, and yes. In 1947, Ludwig Bemelmans—illustrator of the beloved Madeline books—painted murals of New York on the walls of the bar at the Carlyle in exchange for room and board at the hotel. His work is a delight to behold. Stick to classic drinks such as Champagne and, of course, Manhattans here.
The Campbell Apartment
You can’t wear jeans or sneakers to this Gilded Age drinking palace. Once the private office of a gent named John W. Campbell, it was restored and opened up to the public, who have been reveling in its murals, incredible woodwork, and epic grandeur since then. Sip on a classic cocktail, and be prepared to gawk.
One of the city’s oldest bars, the Ear Inn is just as popular as ever. An old mariner’s bar in Soho near the Hudson, it became a speakeasy during Prohibition and at some point in its lifetime, the upstairs served as a brothel and smuggler’s den. In addition to its historic cred, cheap beer and food like chicken potpie and burgers keep people coming back.
Long Island Bar
The Long Island Bar in Brooklyn still looks like a 1950s timepiece, but has an expertly updated cocktail list and menu of excellent bar food. Acclaimed bartender and co-owner Toby Cecchini left the décor as it has always been—vinyl booths, the original wooden bar—and used it as a place to serve classic drinks with a modern twist.