Literary Landmarks: Top Ten Things to Know about Pete’s Tavern

Cincopa video hosting solution for your website. Another great product from Cincopa Send Files.

Literary Landmarks is a new series that invites YPGers to visit a place of literary significance in New York City, Boston, or San Francisco. If you would like to contribute a piece, contact Alex Arnold at

Ten Things to Know about Pete’s Tavern
129 East 18th Street, New York, NY 10003

1) Founded in 1864, Pete’s Tavern claims to be the oldest continually operating drinking establishment in New York. This seems patently false when you consider that McSorley’s Old Ale House in the East Village claims the same thing, and gives its founding date as 1854. But early historical records don’t back McSorley’s up here—for instance, one city report lists the McSorley’s site as a vacant lot between 1860 and 1861—so it’s unclear when McSorley’s permanently opened its doors as the bar that still exists today. Also, McSorley’s didn’t let women in until 1970 (!)—an utterly unrelated factoid that nonetheless makes me more inclined to believe Pete’s Tavern on this one. History is written by the winners, and sexism is for losers.

2) There are some places in New York that opt for subtlety when describing their connections to a famous literary figure. Pete’s Tavern, with THE TAVERN O. HENRY MADE FAMOUS stamped across the awning, windows, and menu, is not one of them. A plaque on the wall two booths from the entrance marks the spot where O. Henry actually wrote “The Gift of the Magi” sometime between 1904 and 1906.

3) O. Henry lived on Irving Place and frequented Pete’s Tavern from 1903 to 1907, back when it was called Healy’s. In 1910 he died from cirrhosis of the liver at the age of 47, but one can see the down-side of putting “The Tavern Where O. Henry Drank Himself to Death” on the awning.

4) Decorations on the walls inside fall into three categories:

a. Portraits of O. Henry (in case you weren’t already aware he used to hang out there). Keeping it real for a second, I have to say: he was sort of hot when he was younger.
b. Large plastic fish—but manly fish, like sharks and marlins and striped bass. Other than being manly, I don’t know what the fish have to do with O. Henry.
c. Lots and lots of photos of celebrities who have visited Pete’s Tavern; apparently O. Henry started a trend. My booth had pictures of the owners posing with Renée Zellweger, Natalie Portman, and former New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

5) Given the bar’s literary history, I expected to find a handful of slightly pretentious writers working inside, hoping O. Henry’s aura would rub off on them. Instead, the laid-back crowd consisting mostly of locals gave the place a solid-neighborhood-bar feel at 6 p.m. on a Thursday night. In fact, there was only one customer writing in a notebook and looking a little toolish… me.

6) The brick walls and the long rosewood bar are originals and look it, in a great way—this is a space that openly celebrates its age.

7) The beer selection isn’t extensive, but they do have a few Belgian and German brews on tap for those interested in an outside-the-box option. On the other hand, if you’re like me, and you still can’t taste the difference between Bud Lite and Miller Lite, they offer a handful of standards that will keep you happy.

8) O. Henry isn’t the only famous author who wrote at Pete’s Tavern; Ludwig Bemelmans penned the first Madeleine book there in the late 1930’s, which surprised me—you always assumed that one had to have been written in Paris, right? Nope. It happened right at the corner of 18th and Irving. According to legend, Bemelmans wrote the first draft on the back of a menu.

9) There is a party room upstairs.

10) I’ve always wondered how anyone was ever able to write successfully in a bar. Wouldn’t a bar be too loud, with too many distractions? Wouldn’t the alcohol seriously impair your ability to get a coherent sentence down on the page? I mean, even Hemingway didn’t write drunk. Once or twice I’ve considered spending an evening writing in Pete’s Tavern, just to put myself in O. Henry’s shoes and get a better sense of how he was able to manage it. Now I know this would be pointless: O. Henry never had to deal with “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” playing in the background while he tried to concentrate on his craft. If he had, “The Gift of the Magi” and “The Ransom of Red Chief” would never have happened, because when Whitney Houston is on, you get up and dance. End of story.

GRADES (on a 1-5 scale):

Fun: 3.5 (see #9)
Cool Factor: 3 for landing on the charming side of cheesy, + 4 plastic wall fish
Affordability (on a publishing salary): 2.5. Beer is reasonably priced; food is on the expensive side given that it’s all bar/casual restaurant fare.
NYC Experience: 5 (4 points for the age and literary tradition; 1 point for the Sex and the City Miranda/Steve proposal that happened outside.)
Total: 14, + 4 plastic wall fish

This article was written by YPG contributing writer Julianne Helinek. Check her out on our contributing writers page here.

Post to Twitter

Tags: , , , ,

Comments are closed.