one afternoon last summer i found myself in Harry’s New York Bar, in Paris (France, you know?). famously the place of origin of the French 75, the Bloody Mary, the White Lady. famously patronized by Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Gertrude Stein, Gershwin. i didn’t know all this at the time; all i knew was that it was reputedly the oldest cocktail bar in Paris, a city the opinion of which as a real-shit house for cocktails I had already spent a week forming, in spite of the potential contributory factors such as the wealth of native bitters / vermouths – Bonal, Picon, Salers, Dolin – and we needed a goddamn drink. a goddamn Old-Fashioned, franchement.*
it’s a beautiful place, not quite like the gleaming French brasseries, but with an timeworn elegance that is restrained foremost by its need to remain legibly unfussily American**. as the story goes, what became Harry’s New York Bar was literally a bar in New York, chopped up, shipped overseas, and reconstructed in Paris in the early 20th c to remedy what was even then perceived as a dearth of good cocktail bars, and it is clear that great pains are taken to give the impression that not much has changed in the décor, comportment, menu or philosophy. what was most profoundly affecting, however, was how quiet it was inside; a calm cool quiet that went deeper than the lack of music, it was as if someone had cut a chunk out of the sticky, suffocating heat of the afternoon and slotted the building in its place. it was immeasurably restoring.
i am reminded in these reflections of another old-ass bar of historic note, in a younger city, that was the source for me of very different impressions even if the two overlap in significant respects. in 1940 The New Yorker published a wonderful profile by Joseph Mitchell (him again, i know) of McSorley’s Old Ale House, at 15 East 7th st in Manhattan, then already considered an anachronism, a dusty cave rich with Old New York history. having arrived there myself 72 years later (almost as old again as it was when the Liebling piece was written), i am inclined to think it rich with the dust of Old New York as well. the place is awesomely filthy. the floor is covered in sawdust and there’s a pot-bellied wood stove in the centre of the room for heat in the winter, several of the tables are just old cable spools, and everything above eye level is black with the kind of grimey dust that feels tacky to the touch just by looking at it, once disturbed threatens to make you over in its own soft, smudged image. they serve only beer, “light” or “dark”, in small mugs, and always two at a time for some reason, two for five. the bartender has a tired-dad look about him and walks with a heavy limp, spending what time he can with his feet up on the bar. he tells me he’s been tending bar for 45 years, and he drank at McSorley’s for 2 before that.
it is strange sitting in a place that embodies so much of what the nouveau rustic of contemporary design emulates, a place that is down to its timbers just waiting to be ‘reclaimed’ and put to aesthetic work probably in a prohibition-styled ‘speakeasy’ (the former of which McSorley’s miraculously weathered without closing or becoming the latter) half a block down the street. but it is too easy and too trite to cast McSorley’s as a fading artifact of a more authentic past, for it is definitely an artifact in a dual sense – clearly decisions have been made to retain and amplify the shabby, bygone charm of the place; the satisfaction of authenticity is thus very much the product – an artifact – of a certain kind of nostalgia work. but, for all that artifactuality (i hesitate to say artificiality), these charms are no less real. when i first read Mitchell’s piece, my desire to see McSorley’s was tempered by my expectation that it would by now be a locale thoroughly and obnoxiously commodified as a tourist experience, gleaming like a TGI Fridays in the night, selling history like hotcakes, or perhaps some combination of the two. so i was pleasantly surprised to find a place so seemingly genuinely at ease with its dumpiness. admittedly, i strolled in on a frigid Sunday night*** in February when perhaps some sort of Superior Bowl was going down on the television, in the absence of any participating local squadrons, but i like to think that the cheap beer, dinge, and liverwurst & onion sandwiches maintain a certain amount of this atmosphere at all hours. in comparing McSorley’s and Harry’s the feeling i find is altogether different. McSorley’s is still sprayed wall-to-wall (and floor to ceiling) with material Americana, but it comes across as patina rather than pastiche. Harry’s New York Bar seems frozen in time, but intentionally so, and thus artificially; trapped somewhere between dignity and Disneyland. whereas McSorley’s feels more like it’s suspended between the 1860s and an insurance fire. i think there’s a lot more that can be said about the different kinds of nostalgia work going on these two places, and perhaps a fruitful analytic distinction can be made between places being frozen in time vs. being frozen out of time, but there’s an SAQ sale today, and i have a bar that needs repleting.
besides which, the Old-Fashioneds at Harry’s weren’t even that good. i have a feeling they make a lot of Bloody Marys.
* happily, i was to be disabused of this opinion not two days later, after i stumbled by accident into Calbar (don’t be deterred by your inevitable and completely understandable horror at the website, should you find yourself thirsty and curious in the 12e arrond. it was perfectly delightful at 3pm on a wednesday; dim, charmingly appointed, and the bartenders were incredibly nice, being perfectly willing to challenge their craftsmanship by trying to cater to my obnoxious tastes), which subsequently (as in, immediately following) led me to Sherry Butt, where shit got all the realer. had a goddamn crazy drink named after a subway station in Tokyo made with Amaro Nardini, fino sherry, marasca, Nikka From the Barrel, and who knows what else. it was pretty good.
** unfortunately, “classy” and “unfussy” can be hard to maintain simultaneously, as the starched white chemist’s coats of the bartenders and the bar’s ‘no shorts’ policy grinding up against 10$ chien chauds and ubiquitous sports memorabilia evinces.
*** the fact that i so regularly extol the merits of going to bars at times when they’re likely to be least occupied may say something telling about why tonight, in that i sleep alone tonight, is just like any other night. my triumphs and my charms notwithstanding.