Just behind a metal fence with a sign that says, “LOWER EAST SIDE TOY COMPANY”, lies the door to one of the oldest speakeasies in NYC. The Backroom is one of two speakeasies which has had continuous operation since prohibition. Its décor and atmosphere hold true to the 1920’s era.
Inside is a dimly lit lounge. Crystal chandeliers give of a soft glow and make you want to dress up like a flapper or Frank Sinatra. The socialites are drinking their cocktails out of tea cups, shots from espresso cups, and beers from paper bags. At the back of the bar is a secret room behind a bookcase. This is reserved for any guests who may be too well known to drink publicly or needs to hold a secret meeting with a mob boss
While waiting to enter the filled but uncrowded speakeasy, the bouncer can give you a history lesson on the bar and the history behind it. In the 1920’s, I don’t think the bouncer would have been as kind. Instead of giving you the history and details about the Jewish Mafia which use to run this establishment, visit this timeless bar and hear about it in person.
If you are looking for a more secluded and quiet historic bar, it is high time for you to visit Landmark Tavern in Hell’s Kitchen. This is one of the oldest running bars in NYC that survived the prohibition era and countless changes to the NYC landscape.
Located at 626 11th Ave, Landmark Tavern has been serving food and drinks since its doors opened in 1868. Its taps have had the pleasure of serving Civil War veterans, gang members, actors, and common folk who worked at the local wood and steel mills located on the Hudson.
In 1868, 11th and 12th Avenue did not exist. The tavern looked across the Hudson river to the shores of NJ. During the prohibition era, the 3rd floor was turned into a speakeasy. The Irish Mafia supplied liquor until the prohibition ended.
During the 1980’s, the Westies, a violent Irish gang that ruled Hell’s Kitchen, frequented Landmark tavern. This gang was known for contract killings as well as running guns and drugs. The Westies partnered with the Italian-American Mafia and operated out of Hell’s Kitchen. According to crime author T.J. English, “Although never more than twelve to twenty members—depending on who was in or out of jail at any given time—the Westies became synonymous with the last generation of Irish in the birthplace of the Irish Mob….”
Today, the restaurant is split into two sections. You can sit in the dinning room and have a glass of wine with your shepherd’s pie or take a seat at the bar and enjoy a scotch egg with beer. It has an excellent food selection with extremely reasonable prices for NYC and Hell’s Kitchen.
If you are visiting NYC for the steak or to learn about mob history, Sparks Steak House is the place to visit. Not only has this restaurant been serving excellent steaks since 1966 but was frequented by mob bosses. At its front doors, mob boss Constantino Paul Castellano, otherwise known as Big Paulie, was assassinated in 1985.
If the walls could talk, they would describe secret meetings between gangsters planning assassinations and gun-running. They would tell you about the night of December 16th, 1985. It was a normal Friday night at the steakhouse. Its bar was crowded and perfect for a meeting between mob bosses. Constantino Paul Castellano, was the head of the Gambino crime family in New York, the nation’s largest Cosa Nostra family at the time. It is uncertain who he was meeting with that night. His unsanctioned assassination was headed by John Gotti. His team of hitmen was waiting outside of Sparks Steakhouse. Before Big Paulie walked into Sparks he was gunned down and shot in the head by John Carneglia. John Gotti, who was under Castellano, eventually became the head of the Gambino family.
Located at 210 East 46th Street, Sparks is in the heart of Manhattan surrounded by the bright lights of Time Square. You would think it would exhibit the bright lights and architecture of modernity to bleed in but entering through the steakhouse doors takes you back to a time of opulence and culture. It is an old-world steakhouse filled with old wooden chairs which surround large circular tables. Mahogany furniture and old-fashioned oil paintings, original to its 1966 opening, make you feel like you’re a mob boss waiting to meet the ghost of Constantino Paul Castellano.
Along with the old-time decor and mob history, it also is a great place to eat a steak or dine on a freshly cooked lobster. Once seated, you will look through the exquisite wine list with prices ranging from $50 to a few thousand. Its NY Strip and ribeye are some of the best in the Time Square area.
Inside an old brick building lies, in my opinion, the most historical bar of NYC. It was in NYC before the American Revolution and continues to be a staple bar for investors and floor traders to talk shop after the closing bell.
Located at 54 Pearl St, Fraunces Tavern is the oldest building in NYC. Originally built in 1719 as a home, this mansion was then sold to Samuel Fraunces in 1762. He then turned it into a tavern calling it the Queen’s Head.
Before the American Revolution, the Sons of Liberty held secret meetings at this tavern. The men at these meetings helped to plot the revolutionary war and to secure freedom from British tyrants. After the success of the revolution, General George Washington gave his farewell address to his officers. It was in the long room, which overlooks Broad St, that Washington said the words, “With a heart full of love and gratitude, I now take leave of you. I most devoutly wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable.”
To truly appreciate its magnificent and long history, you need to sip on a Fraunces Tavern brewed Plain Porter. It is a smooth drink with a hint of bitterness. The Plain Porter also was named the best stout in the world in 2017 and 2016. If you’re not into stouts, they have another 139 beers to choose from (that’s a lot of beer to drink!) Thankfully, the hardwood floors and original décor make you feel like you might be sitting with the Sons of Liberty and you may never want to leave.
If you are a real history buff and want to fact check me, you can visit the taverns museum which covers the whole history of the building and the area around it. It is open seven days a week and it is a true gem among the towering concrete and glass.
As a tourist, frequent visitor, or long-term resident, chances are you are looking for a unique night out, in the city that never sleeps. If you use Yelp or Google, they will show you the top drinking spots in an area, which get overcrowded on a Friday night or will break the bank. To get around that, here are the 5 reasons you should go to a historic bar.
Unlike many large cities in America, NYC was one of the first major metropolises in North America. Wall Street, now known for its financial industry, was named after the original wall that surrounded the small city on the southern part of the island, in the 17th century. Within this wall, the home for the mayor was built in 1671 which is now the location of Fraunces Tavern. Only in a city as old as NYC can you find a place like that.
Let’s be honest, taking the first date to a college bar is not romantic or civil. I would call it childish and lame. Instead, take them to a place with a lot of history and a little class. A historic bar is just that. Take the information on this blog and impress your next date on how the Italian Mob ran guns and booze through this old speakeasy while sipping on a unique house cocktail. This will be sure to keep them interested and provide talking pieces so there is never a quiet moment.
- Bar Tenders Appreciate the History
Unlike most places, the employees at these historic sights appreciate the history and have a respect for the establishment. They do not have a high turnover rate on bartenders because they love where they work and the type of people the ambiance attracts. A happy bartender helps to create the unique experience a historic bar gives.
Many of these bars are off the beaten path or a newer “hip” bar a block away has attracted the cheaper drinker. This means that many historic bars are not crowded. These places also have classier music, such as jazz, and don’t blare the top 20 list on repeat. The volume and tone of the music fits an atmosphere respectful of the great men and women who drank there before us.
As with all great things that last through the age, from the great pyramids in Egypt to the American Constitution, the historic bars in NYC were here before us and will be here after us. So, grab a friend or a date and enjoy the time out with sips of history.