Searching for the Soul of the NYC Bar | Wine Enthusiast
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Searching for the Soul of the NYC Bar

As I stepped beyond the “New York-style vestibule” covered with familiar hexagon-shaped subway tile and took a seat at the long wooden bar, I felt a cozy familiarity. I scanned the drink menu: There was a Penicillin, created at NYC’s Attaboy, and the Cosmopolitan, from NYC’s Odeon. But this lifelong New Yorker was in Texas; specifically, I had arrived at Murray’s Tavern, an explicitly New York-inspired bar in Austin.

“It’s our homage to New York City taverns, like P.J. Clarke’s,” explained owner Travis Tober, who opened the bar in December 2023. Named for his Irish-Polish New Yorker grandmother (her maiden name was Murray), the vibe is on point: antique clocks mixed with wood-framed sports memorabilia, sconce lights casting a warm glow against the pressed-tin ceiling; a Guinness in front of most patrons.

The key word is “homage.” Of course, Murray’s isn’t the first bar to reference NYC. But if the city can function as theme park fodder (see: the New York New York casino and resort in Las Vegas, which includes an outpost of steakhouse Gallagher’s and “New York” pizza) or an exportable commodity, as homegrown NYC bars from Death & Co. to Dead Rabbit have begun to franchise ferociously in other cities, does a New York City bar still have meaning?

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I thought about that as I sipped on a Rob Roy—a Scotch-based Manhattan with roots in NYC, here given a delicious hit of peaty Lagavulin and spiced with pimento bitters—and ordered a lavish version of the famously spartan cheese plate found at McSorley’s Old Ale House, turbo-charged into a charcuterie plate with corned beef, Texas sweet onions sprinkled with fresh herbs and glossy fried saltines.

New York is a city of immigrants, and its taverns reflect that heritage. Manhattan’s first taverns were run by Dutch settlers; when the Great Famine forced starving Irish people to flee to the U.S., they brought Irish pubs (McSorley’s and P.J. Clarke’s are notable scions of that migration); by the 1850s, the Irish comprised onequarter of the populations of Manhattan and Brooklyn. When the flow of people went West around the 1820s, saloons, rudimentary drinking establishments catering to men only, entered the lexicon back East. Prohibition claimed the word “saloon,” a casualty of reformers, so savvy owners instead called their venues “lounges” or “taverns.”

For perspective, I turned to Amanda Schuster, a Brooklyn-based writer who has penned two books about NYC drinkways (New York Cocktails, Drink Like a Local New York), in addition to her latest book, Signature Cocktails. “To me, what defines a New York bar, and attaches a true authenticity to it, are the people who work and drink there,” she said.

But can that quality be captured elsewhere? Not really. “Something is always off,” Schuster says. There will always be an intangible missing: “It’s a je ne sais fuhgeddabouditness that can only be experienced out drinking within the five boroughs.”

I didn’t exactly feel a sideways shift of the space-time continuum when I plopped my butt on the barstool at Murray’s. Penny tiles and New York Sours are fun, but you can’t import New Yorkers or their collective attitude. And without them, fuhgeddaboutit.

This article originally appeared in the May 2024 of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

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