Know Your Corner Bar, Vol. 1: Old Town

A legendary tavern celebrates 125 years in business

September 22, 2017 9:00 am

New York is home to plenty of great watering holes, but none is more beloved than the corner bar. Hence we bring you Know Your Corner Bar, a recurring, ahem, dive into the tales and characters behind one of the city’s most storied taverns.

Many an NYC tavern have opened and closed overnight.

This is not one of those stories.

Because Flatiron’s Old Town Bar turns 125 this month, which basically renders it prehistoric in Manhattan bar years.

Nestled on 18th between Broadway and Park Avenue South, you may or may not know the joint. Unassuming is its manner: it’s either your church or you’ve passed it a million times without so much as noticing the sign.

But rest assured, Old Town has been alive and kicking in the Flatiron since 1892.

The location went through a number of iterations — most of them German-American in clientele  — before now-owner Gerry Meagher’s family took over in the ‘70s. Gerry’s father, Larry, started out as a copyboy for the Sun. A marriage and six kids later, he took work as a photo engraver for the paper and got his Union stripes to win better bread.

Old Town just so happened to be around the corner from the now-defunct rag. That made it the perfect spot to saddle up with his pals after a long day. Larry saw Old Town’s potential in its approachability: a friendly neighborhood bar — nothing less, nothing more — where hard-working gents could exchange war stories after a long day at the office. So when the Sun folded, he got into the bar business.

Then-owner Henry Lohden had taken the Old Town reins back in ‘52, after Prohibition. In those days, the bar was open Monday through Friday, nine to five. But Larry convinced Lohden to let him open it up at night and bartend.

The bar had traditionally been a hitching post for truckers and printing plant workers who worked in the area, but by and by, curious nighttime passersby started trickling in. In 1960, they opened the previously unused second level and introduced food, and business flowed in heavier still.

When Lohden passed in ’85, he left half of Old Town to Larry, who would later take over for Lohden’s widow and come to own what used to be his happy-hour haunt.

Gerry, by then in his twenties, worked in advertising. He’d eventually score a gig with Heineken, but still tended bar once a week for his father through the ‘70s and ‘80s, when Union Square began to gentrify. The Union Square Development Corp. cleaned up what was once a rough neighborhood, and the addition of a farmers’ market breathed new life into the area.

old town (2 images)

But Old Town, ever the stalwart, remained the same — due in large part to the fact that they owned their own building, and were thus immune to the skyrocketing rents that sent other local business packing.

“The problem with the New York bar scene is that it’s become segmented,” says Gerry. “You have your working man’s bar, your Wall Street bar, your gay bar. And this area has become a magnet for more than the working man can afford. But since we own the building, we are able to attract more than just tech people. We get a real mixture, and that’s what we pride ourselves in.”

It doesn’t hurt that they also serve some of the tastiest chicken wings in the city. “But my father said this place was built on the hamburger,” says Gerry. “We’ve been written up as one of the best five burgers in New York.”

Point being: the place trades on more than historical pedigree to attract barflies. The fare is simple, high-quality and affordable, from the homemade coleslaw to the potato salad to the fresh-from-scratch fries.

And that old-school philosophy extends to their spirits, as well.

Wings (3 images)

Says Gerry: “Henry used to say we were known for the Old Fashioned back in the ‘30s and ‘40s. But we’re not a boutique cocktail place. We like to be basic, and we’re known for a good pour.”

Their regulars are a testament to their consistency: in the space of a Sunday afternoon, we met Philip Twatz — who’s been coming for 60 years — as well as an out-of-towner who moved away 30 years ago and was beside himself to see the place still kickin’.

Despite the modest setting, Old Town has seen its share of notables slide on through: it’s been featured in Sex and the City, the video for House of Pain’s “Jump Around” and Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway. When Kevin Spacey took on the knockout Broadway show O’Neill, he even credited Old Town for his inspiration. “He said it felt like you’re in your mother country,” says Gerry. “Like a place you never wanted to leave.”

But they don’t really talk about their clientele at Old Town. Or they don’t care to.  

While the likes of Liam Neeson, Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks were frequent flyers back in the day, “What I like is that we get a lot of irregular regulars,” says Gerry. “When you have the same 20 people at the bar every night, it’s not that interesting. We have bartenders and staff that have been here for 25-30 years. We get to see the people who come back every now and then once or twice a week. Enduring patrons — but not obsessively.”

As for the secret to staying in business for the next 125 years?

“My father always said to cultivate the right sort of people,” Gerry tells us. “If you get the wrong type of people, they drive out the right people. If someone shows up and gets out of line, you’ve gotta make ‘em feel uncomfortable, so they don’t want to come back. Because once you become overrun with the bad sort, it’s hard to come back.”

But it’s not just keeping the roughnecks out that’s kept them afloat. In fact, they’ve never come close to shuttering. On their success, Gerry merely says, “You have to price and present your food and drink so that people feel like they spent wisely.” They’ve always lived within their means, and stand prepared for a rainy day.

Even Gerry can’t tell you the whole history of the place, though.

At their anniversary celebration last Sunday, some great-great-grandchildren of the original owners were in attendance. Amidst an oompah band and Oktoberfest beers, the survivors presented Gerry with a framed business card from the original space, then called L.E.Reichenecker, that he’d never seen.

The kids weren’t out of place. Neither was the oompah. That’s because anyone can walk into Old Town and feel comfortable. That’s their thing.

“We try to look at the big picture,” he says, “and the little things that annoy, we ignore,” says Gerry. “You have to look for the sun in the sky and not the clouds.”


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