The White Horse Tavern

Old-school watering hole.

Old-school watering hole.

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Enduring. The West Village changed around it, but the White Horse remains true to its proletariat roots.

As it undoubtedly has for many a New Yorker over the last century, the White Horse Tavern recently rescued my evening.

A friend from the Midwest was visiting town one unseasonably warm night and asked me to choose a place for a drink in the West Village. I thought of a new bar and restaurant on upper Hudson Street. There was a lot of buzz surrounding it, and it had, I knew, sidewalk seating. We arrived under cloudy skies and asked for one of the outside tables, all of which were empty. The hostess said they weren’t available because “it might rain.” But it wasn’t raining, I pointed out. We’d happily take the risk. The hostess smiled, but held firm. OK, we said, we’ll take a table inside. “Those are reserved for diners,” said the hostess. “But you’re welcome to take a seat at the bar.” The bar was three deep.

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With a sigh, I pivoted and looked across the street, where my gaze met the ever-welcoming sight of the White Horse Tavern. Why hadn’t I thought of that in the first place? It, too, had al fresco seating. Plenty of it. Could we sit outside, I asked a waitress, or were they afraid it would rain? She looked at me like I was simple-minded. “Go ahead,” she said.

The White Horse Tavern isn’t afraid of a little rain. It’s been around since 1880 and seen many versions of Greenwich Village come and go, most of them quite stormier than the present posh incarnation. It’s played host to longshoremen, radicals, missionaries, poets, journalists, balladeers and hordes of tourists. What’s a shower going to do to it?

Since the demise (and unlikely return) of Chumley’s, the White Horse reigns alone as the West Village’s standard bearer of Olde New York saloon culture. It’s an island of proletariat, no-nonsense, faintly bohemian drinking in what has become a moneyed neighborhood. The chalkboard to the right of the old mahogany bar says it all: “No Credit Cards. Cash Only. Please Pay When Served. No Tabs. No Smoking.” Another sign instructs that only customers age 25 and older will be served. No babies allowed at the Horse.

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The joint’s popularity has rarely flagged over the decades, and it still packs them in on the weekends, when young people descend on the place en masse and fill the saloon with a happy din. During the day, however, it is the domain of old-timers and the sort of slightly careworn types you’d think had been driven out long ago by rising rents. They hoist a foot on the old brass rail, and open the paper or watch the game. One old guy in a jean jacket covered with patches from different zoos and aquariums does the crossword. Another checks the racing form. A distracted old woman sips tea with lemon from a beer mug and waits for a friend who never arrives. If you’re wondering where the non-beautiful people go to drink in the Village, this is it. The extensive food menu is priced so such folks can afford it. The waitresses who serve it are friendly, hearty and unglamorous; in another life, they would have been slinging suds in a waterfront dive.

The bar is oddly shaped, hugging the crooked contours of Hudson and West 11th Street. The main room is decorated with countless statues and images of white horses. Even the hexagonal chandeliers are adorned with horse heads. An alien could decipher the name of the place in five seconds. (The bar got its moniker from the once widely popular Scotch blend White Horse Whisky.)

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The Village People. This 133-year-old haunt draws weekend crowds, but during the day it remains the domain of old-timers you’d think had been driven out long ago by rising rents.

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Through a door to the left are two more rooms, descending in size. Each is equipped with a pendulum clock, which is funny, since no one at the White Horse ever seems to be watching the time.

The middle room—once the back room, before the bar expanded in the 1970s—is where the literary types tended to gather in the 1950s. Norman Mailer, James Baldwin and Delmore Schwartz were all regulars, as were activist Jane Jacobs, and much of the staff of The Catholic Worker, Commonweal and the early Village Voice. They’d argue happily over politics and the latest Salinger story over endless pints, and sing Irish ballads with Mary Travers (of Peter, Paul & Mary) and the Clancy Brothers, who used to make the White Horse their second home.

The middle room is also a virtual shrine to Dylan Thomas, whose patronage single-handedly turned the watering hole into a literary hang. As even the most casual of armchair New York historians knows, the Welsh poet enjoyed his final binge at the White Horse. How many whiskeys he drank in succession is a matter of dispute, but the number was considerable. (Contrary to popular legend, he did not collapse a few steps from its door, but died several days later.) One might imagine that the bar might be ashamed of this rather morbid association, but it has traded successfully on its connection to Thomas ever since. A large and rather spooky portrait of the garrulous scribbler always seems to be staring at you—somewhat accusingly, somewhat fearfully, as if you were a bill collector, or Death.

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Do not go gentle into that good night. Dylan Thomas’s patronage turned the Horse into a literary hang, and the poet enjoyed his final binge right here. How many whiskeys he drank in succession is a matter of dispute, but the number was considerable.

Only tourists talk about Thomas these days. But the conversations can still be interesting. One recent night, a veteran bartender casually related one of the “highlights of his life,” when, during a road trip through Texas in 1968, Janis Joplin sat on his lap smelling of Southern Comfort. I asked him about the cane hanging above the bar. “The shillelagh?” he corrected. “I think it belonged to Eugene O’Neill.” I doubted it. But, in this place, who knows?

Behind me, a bookish little man ate his hamburger with a knife and fork. Four identical young Wall Streeters in identical suits drank identical drams. A couple on a first date smiled nervously at each other. A fidgety regular at the bar teased the waitress about her taste for men in uniform. Passing through them all came an old fellow dressed in an old windbreaker, wandering toward the exit. Between coughs, he muttered, “Nice bar … cozy bar.”

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Robert Simonson writes about cocktails, spirits and bars for the New York Times. His book "The Old-Fashioned: The World's First Classic Cocktail" was published by Ten Speed Press in May. With his visit to Van Brunt Stillhouse, he thinks he's finally seen every Brooklyn micro-distillery. But he's not sure.