Old Town Bar on 18th Street in Manhattan's Flatiron District is as steeped in history as almost any bar you can name. Sure, Pete's Tavern, located just a few blocks away, can lay claim to being the oldest bar in New York (dating back to 1864) and also of having a rich literary history, being universally known as the "tavern O. Henry made famous."
Old Town Bar
45 East 18th Street, New York NY 10003; map); 212-529-6732; oldtownbar.com
The Skinny: Great bar with a great history, but the burger is not great. Have a pint instead.
Want Fries with That? Skin-on fries come with the burger but are limp and often just above room temperature
Price: $10 for cheeseburger and fries
But Old Town itself dates back to 1892, and, while it might lack the literary pedigree of Pete's, it has its own, significant history in the political arena. Located close to the effective seat of political power for more than a century in New York City, namely Tammany Hall, Old Town Bar was allowed to operate as a speakeasy during Prohibition under Tammany's patronage. Tammany Hall moved from 14th Street in 1929 to a new location, and, incidentally, its final resting place on 17th Street, just a stone's throw away from Old Town.
One can imagine many a shady political machination occurring under Old Town's tin ceiling. I envision Runyonesque characters pressing the flesh of local Tammany officials in literal back-room deals, over mugs of ale and plates of the German cuisine that dominated the menu here for quite some time. The place still reeks of history. The mahogany and marble bar is the original one, as is the tin ceiling that sits 16 feet above. The dumbwaiter is the oldest one still operating in New York and even the enormous urinals, made by Hindsdale, date to 1910.
One piece of history that has been shed is the German menu, which has been replaced with a fairly standard bar menu. Sandwiches, salads, chicken wings, and, of course, hamburgers, which the menu claims is the bar's specialty.
I ordered a rare burger with American cheese and was heartened when it showed up, as it was a good-looking sandwich. The cheese oozing out delectably, the two generous slices melting an eight-point star onto the plump-looking griddle-cooked patty. The seeded bun appeared to be quite moist with burger juice but, unfortunately, when I took the first bite, I found the beef to be quite dry and slightly overcooked. The bun was moist, but the patty was dry. The beef was finely ground and was also quite lean; it appeared as if any juice it might have yielded had made its way on to the bun before the burger had even made it to the table.
The beef itself had decent flavor, but texturally it boardered on the mealy. The skin-on fries that accompany the burger were a bit on the limp side and were served only slightly above tepid, although the lettuce, pickle, and tomato were all fresh and vibrantly colored.
There is definitely potential here, the beef-to-bun ratio was spot on. And the price of admittance is a reasonable $10 (with fries), but I think that the beef itself is just too lean to make a truly great hamburger.
Old Town Bar has a rich history and has thankfully remained untouched from interior renovations. For a real glimpse of an increasingly vanishing New York, a pint under its vintage tin ceiling is a worthy expenditure of time. Unfortunately, a burger here is not nearly as nourishing.
Go for a pint, but skip the burger.
Bonus History Lesson
If you're of a certain age and also watched David Letterman in the '80s, you'll remember Old Town as the bar the camera flies through in the Late Show opener. Here's a vid:
Link: Letterman Intro [YouTube]
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