Happy new year. January is usually a month of fresh starts and new chapters. But to tell you the truth, I’m not ready to face the future yet. I don’t know if it’s the short afternoons, the feeble sunshine, the chafing wind or just a creeping dread of what might be down the road. But after New Year’s Day, when other people are ordering mocktails and grinding away on the Peloton, I often find myself in some old restaurant or other, holding a beer and dwelling on the past.
To my mind, January is a good month for holing up in old joints. I don’t mean places that opened a couple of years ago. I’m talking about ones that were in business before my grandparents were born. New York happens to be full of tin-ceilinged establishments built during the Gilded Age, and even some that were founded even earlier. These are some of the more notable:
McSorley’s Old Ale House (1854), East Village
On winter mornings when the forecast calls for snow, I’ll try to arrange to watch it come down through McSorley’s windows. It’s not that the ale (light or dark only) and food are especially good at fighting the cold. True enough, there is always a pot of white bean soup or some other American favorite on the burner. And yes, the dark, thick chili con carne is both steaming hot and spiced more convincingly than you might expect from a 170-year-old Irish saloon. But I’m just as content with a cold sandwich — a ham-and-cheese or, better, pink liverwurst unapologetically stacked with raw onions — as long as I can find a seat somewhere in the vicinity of the pot bellied stove. It blasts heat from the coal burning inside it and the water simmering in a copper stockpot on top.
Keens Steakhouse (1885), Midtown
Everybody loves the steaks and the so-called mutton chop (it’s lamb), but I’ve never been convinced you can’t get better hunks of meat at other steakhouses. Where Keens sets itself apart is in its Pub Room, a dark, tranquil room just off the bar. The pub menu, served in both rooms, is where you’ll find one of the treasures of Herald Square: the prime rib hash. It also has a worthwhile burger, braised short ribs, a fine if chewy sirloin steak sandwich and a formidable BLT made with juicy slabs of caramelized bacon cut to the thickness of a grapefruit peel. The fried chicken salad is not in the same class, but as main-course salads go it’s still kind of wonderful.
The Old Town Bar and Restaurant (1892), Flatiron district
Has it been a minute since you sat down for a meal at the Old Town? If so, it’s possible you have forgotten how well it functions as a restaurant. The service is brisk and focused, diner-style, but more cheerful. The food that comes out of the kitchen (by dumbwaiter, if you sit downstairs) is just what you’re hoping for, as long as you avoid the Mexican appetizers. I don’t know who would order a quesadilla here, anyway, when you can have a warm, soft pretzel the size of a steering wheel. As at McSorley’s, there are cold sandwiches of liverwurst and tuna salad. The griddled Feltman’s dog on a toasted bun, with or without chili, slightly outshines the burgers, although there are passionate partisans on both sides. Less obvious is a minor classic known as the pumpernickel sandwich — a grilled Muenster on black bread with sautéed mushrooms. The chef Wylie Dufresne, with his keen sense for the signature flavors of New York, pays homage to it with one of his pies at Stretch Pizza.
Delmonico’s (1827; 1926), Financial district
Delmonico’s has changed hands and addresses many times since 1827. Even the interiors on Beaver Street, its location since 1926, have been gutted and rebuilt. Still, its latest incarnation, which arrived in September, has a strong sense of history. Dishes invented here, in fact or in legend, include the Delmonico steak, Oscar’s Wedge Salad, Lobster Newberg, Eggs Benedict and Chicken a la Keene, as it was supposedly known before Keene somehow became King. All these recipes have been dusted off by a new chef, Edward Wong. He does his best, but some of this stuff has been in the public domain so long it’s hard to recapture whatever excitement they must have held once. Miro Uskokovic, the pastry chef, has an easier assignment. You want to love his baked Alaska, and he makes sure you do.