This week, Neir’s, the venerable tavern in Woodhaven, threw down the gauntlet as the Queens Historical Society anointed it NYC’s oldest continuously operated drinking establishment, challenging the self-proclaimed champion, McSorley’s on East 7th Street in the East Village, which claims 1854 as its opening year. NYC historian Richard McDermott claimed differently in the mid-1990s; according to his research employing old insurance maps, census data and tax-assessment records, indicators pointed to an 1862 opening. McSorley’s certainly gained cachet over the years from Joseph Mitchell’s stories in the New Yorker, collected in his book Up In the Old Hotel. Infamously, McSorley’s stubbornly insisted on settling for half its potential profits by only admitting male customers until a court challenge in 1970.
Both McSorley’s and Neir’s, if nature had not intervened, would lose out to the South Street Seaport’s Bridge Cafe, which under various ownership has been operated as a distillery, grocery and bar since 1794. However, the Bridge Cafe has been shuttered since the area was flooded by Hurricane Sandy in October 2012, and it is unknown when it will reopen. Its website says it is “temporarily closed” and it’s hoped that ‘temporary’ is indeed the case.
This leaves us with Neir’s, which, for the time being, at least, is the present champion. At 87-48 78th Street at 88th Avenue (formerly Snedeker, Snediker, or Sneideicker Avenue, depending on what map you consult, and 3rd Avenue, stands one of New York City’s oldest taverns, Neir’s, opened by their account in 1829 as The Pump Room, or Old Blue Pump House, to serve Union Course patrons.
There was once a race track across the street, according to Wikipedia:
“Woodhaven became the site of two racetracks: the Union Course (1821) and the Centerville (1825). Union Course was a nationally famous racetrack situated in the area now bounded by 78th Street, 82nd Street, Jamaica Avenue and Atlantic Avenue. The Union Course was the site of the first skinned — or dirt — racing surface, a curious novelty at the time. These courses were originally without grandstands. The custom of conducting a single, four-mile (6 km) race consisting of as many heats as were necessary to determine a winner, gave way to programs consisting of several races. Match races between horses from the South against those from the North drew crowds as high as 70,000. Several hotels (including the Snedeker Hotel and the Forschback Inn) were built in the area to accommodate the racing crowds.”
Though Neir’s is presently the oldest drinking establishment in the city it gets little notice or press outside of Queens. Its founder was Cadwallader Colden, and that name might raise a scintilla of recognition for New York State history scholars: his great-grandfather, who had the same name, was acting governor of NY State and mayor of NYC in the colonial era. The Neir’s name comes from Louis Neir, who purchased the place in 1898, adding a bowling alley, ballroom, and rooms for rent upstairs.
Entertainer Mae West’s (1893-1980) name is attached to a number of institutions in Brooklyn, notably the Astral Apartments and Teddy’s in Greenpoint and North Williamsburg, and she is said to have begun her showbiz career singing here; a plaque marks her former home on 88th Street. At times, believers say, the ghost of Mae can sometimes still be seen here. Her association with Neir’s has been disputed, however. What is indisputable is that several scenes of Martin Scorsese’s mob epic Goodfellas, with Robert DeNiro and Ray Liotta, were filmed here in 1989, as were scenes from the 2011 Ben Stiller vehicle Tower Heist. Neir’s menus takes full advantage of the notoriety, as the house burger is called The Shinebox.
While McSorley’s offers only light and dark versions of its house ale, a full slate of beer, ale and liquor is available at Neir’s, along with burgers (among the best I’ve had in Queens) and other flavorful menu items.
Neir’s, it seems, won’t be much of a secret any more.