Three bars on East 7th Street, New York, one Monday in November

That’s McSorley’s ale house (which is old), not McSorley’s house (of old ale)

Late last year we were fortunate enough to be in New York, happily spending each day walking towards some landmark or other and then exploring the surrounding neighbourhood a bit before catching the subway home. After visiting the stunning Public Library and the enormous Strand Bookstore, I saw we were close to a couple of pins I’d put into my map before the trip1 so we walked a few more blocks — and stumbled into a succession of quietly magical moments. One unassuming little street, three lessons in how to be a great bar.

McSorley’s was the first stop. I’d read about it ages ago — you know you’re dealing with an institution when there’s a profile in Modern Drunkard which is now itself old enough to drink in the U.S., nevermind a piece in The New Yorker from the year my father was born — but it spent a long time in the ‘tentative’ section of my vague plans. Something about descriptions of the sawdusted floor and the peculiar two-glass pour of beers only ever described as ‘light’ or ‘dark’ had the whiff of gimmickry. But a strong endorsement from a regular of mine (all the stronger for the fact he’s no kind of beer nerd and so lacked any in-built reverence for these things) swayed me, and I’m very glad it did;2 it’s an extremely charming place. It is also rather unusual and something of a museum, but those are secondary to it being a great pub.

Its eccentricities seemed honest and well-worn, not like the affectations of someone trying to be zany to compensate for a lack of personality. Service was relaxed and welcoming, with none of the over-explanation a ‘themed’ venue might feel it needed. Just come in, have a beer (or two) and be good or be gone (as the sign says).3 We sat, reading the walls,4 enjoying but not overthinking the beer, and soaked in the background noise of other conversations, the clink of those heavy-bottomed glasses together and the thunk of them on the tables — and the absence of anything else. It was such top tier burble that I was moved to record it. Naturally, the resulting file entirely failed to capture it, but I don’t think I’ve ever before felt I needed to try.

Two beers, despite appearances
A back bar full of relics
A back room full of frames

Burp Castle was so close by as to be irresistible after that. I had added it to my map after reading a piece in Good Beer Hunting and had remembered the general Belgian monastic vibe but forgotten its own particular quirk: a rule to speak only in whispers. But again we got the sense that we weren’t expected to know the bar’s foibles, just to adapt to them once they became clear. Halfway through my first beer, I had fully acclimated; it was just like switching from hanging out in a busy bookstore to being in a library (fittingly enough, for the day we had).5 A place where a serene, meditative mood was the norm rather than a piece of lucky timing (or, worse, the sign of a ‘dead’ day) felt truly special.

The bartender twice broke out of his muted default. Once, when I was contemplating my second beer and asked his opinion of a relatively-local tripel, he brightened and said without hesitation “oh, that shit’s beautiful” (he was not wrong). Then, after a few more couples and groups had filtered in and the volume level crept up, as it does, he very gently — but with the direct insistence of an exam proctor — shushed the crowd. We’d previously heard him training a fill-in bartender: “the whispering thing is kind of a joke, but also kind of not”, and that seemed to capture things perfectly.

Understated, for a castle frontage
Signage behind the bar at Burp Castle: no $100 bills, no loud talking, no smoking, and a large Please Whisper with a smiley face going "Shhhh"
“No mobiles, no wigwams…”
Burp Castle's taplist and a lamp made from a big beer bottle, near a rope-wrapped steam pipe
Tap list, bottle lamp, rope-wrapped steam pipe
A mural on the wall of Burp Castle, New York, featuring monks saving barrels of beer in a shipwreck
One of many murals of monks

Proletariat was a pure happy accident. Heading back towards the subway, Emma spotted the name painted on the window of a gorgeous dark bar and knew both would appeal. One last beer, then, to slowly return to “normal”. After the 1800-something feel of McSorley’s6 and the 1990s-into-early-2000s of Burp Castle,7 this was classic 2020s modern craft beer bar, done beautifully. I had a suitably on-trend trial-hop hazy IPA from Finback, and quietly marveled at how deftly the bartender was handling a guy a few seats further along the bar who was being annoying — despite the extra power imbalances of the tipping economy.8 More than the others, this place could’ve been anywhere, but I’m glad it was here on our way home.

Despite their differences, all three bars had one thing in common, and it made for a powerful reminder to get a triple dose in one evening, on one street. They know what they are, and you are absolutely invited to be part of it. The door is open. But — they say, each in their own terms and as nicely as possible — if you want something else, go somewhere else. The door opens the other way, too.

Modern American IPA by candlelight
A good sign (and two happy wanderers)

Diary IV, entries 78-80, transcribed:

McSorley’s, estd. 1856 13/11/23, after a walk down Fifth Ave for the New York Public Library and Strand. Book day, apparently. (I’ll admit the latter didn’t get me like Powell’s, maybe that says something more about me.)9 I thought this place sounded gimmicky; the sawdust, the beer as “dark” or “light” only, the weird low-tide multi-glass service. But damn if it doesn’t just work. Felt very welcoming, like nothing was a problem, things would be explained. Beers were fine, and that’s all I ever ask. But the bar was great, in its singular way. Tonnes of history on display. The quiet burble of people and the clinking of heavy handle mugs the only soundtrack.

Burp Castle 13/11/23, 100m away. And which makes the previous sound like foreshadowing. I only knew the Belgian-ish vibe of this place. The murals were a nice surprise. The whisper-quiet rule, not so much. I mean, it’s fine now but I don’t think I’ve faus pas’d so hard in a long time. Duvel for me is helping. Houblon Chouffe for Em. Piano solo soundtrack, exclusively. It would be crazy-making torture for so, so many people. But once you dial yourself in its pretty nice. Then a River Horse Tripel because 1) Hippo, 2) I can get the Euro stuff pretty regularly (this is from NJ) and 3) when I asked the suitably taciturn bartender, he said “oh, that shit’s beautiful” without skipping a beat. And he’s not wrong. The softest touch of “hot” and “sweet”, neither within shouting of bad. — Both places feel singular, and there’s not enough of that. There’s even less of that where a new person isn’t made to feel a jackass just for being new. Em had it that both places feel sacred, and she’s onto something.

Proletariat 13/11/23, between the previous two, stumbled on it and couldn’t resist. “Rare, new + unusual beers.” Finback ‘In Full View’ IPA with a number hop (17701 if my eyesight is holding). Super nice and modern-USA, all melon + citrus + good times. It’s a beautiful spot, copper bar, tin roof, low light. Plus one chatty jackass bothering the barkeep, but she’s a pro, she’s got this. What a street!

  1. With so much to do and to see, there’s no amount of cramming it all in that would manage to cram it all in (and I’ve written before about avoiding FOMO by embracing it) so we opted for peppering a map with potential spots and mostly letting the mood of the day guide us.
  2. It also got a positive passing mention in Insomniac City, which Emma had read and enjoyed, along with a small pile of other New-York-related bits of fiction and non. So we were both on board.
  3. It sure seems like they might be the origin of this excellent phrase, which I’ve seen hung up with the reverence and definitiveness of a Commandment in many much-younger venues. I deeply regret not getting the tshirt.
  4. A framed front page beside our table told the story of the lawsuit that (in 1970!) finally forced management to admit women as customers. So to the extent the place has the personality quirks of an amiable hundred-and-seventy-year-old, they did also come with a few unfortunately long-held bigotries.
  5. And indeed, the only other customer when we arrived was a chap in the corner reading a large spine-broken paperback.
  6. Or at least 1970s, since Emma was allowed in.
  7. When Belgian (or at least European) imports accounted for a much greater proportion of the available good and interesting beer.
  8. Occasionally, here in Australasia, people float the idea that tipping should be normalised. Absolutely not, I say, despite the “benefits” that might flow my way. More on this another time.
  9. On the way home, we popped back in and discovered the cavernous basement, and that won me over.

Have at it: