Pete’s Tavern (New York, New York)

Pete's Tavern
Photo by John Wisniewshi

Pete’s Tavern in the Gramercy Park neighborhood of Manhattan, is a historic pub and local literary attraction. Thanks in part to a somewhat strange relationship with writer O. Henry, the bar now called Pete’s has been proudly serving booze since 1864. That is of course with the exception of the prohibition years, when they were proudly selling flowers, and secretly selling booze.

There’s good evidence that alcohol was sold from this location as early as 1851 or 1852, and the fact that there it was once market affectionately called “grocery & grog” only adds credence to the history. The first official drinking establishment at this location was founded in 1864, and was purchased from its original owner by Tom and John Healy in 1899. Peter Belles purchased the bar from the Healys in 1926 and it’s been known as Pete’s Tavern ever since.

Pete’s Tavern is one of several establishments claiming to be the oldest continuously operated tavern in the city. It is well documented that there has been a drinking establishment on the premises from 1864 to today, but there are other bars in New York that claim to be the oldest continually operating in the city. One of the most famous of these other bars that claim to be the longest running in the city is McSorley’s Old Ale House in the East Village, who claims to have been in operation since 1854, which is patently false since land records show a vacant lot at the location as late as 1861. So for the sake of argument, we give this particular win to good old Pete’s.

O. Henry lived just down the street at 55 Irving Place from 1903 to 1907, and his short story “The Lost Blend” includes an appearance of “Kenealy’s Cafe”, which was based on Healy’s, which is now of course Pete’s. Though he was the most famous patron, O. Henry wasn’t the only writer that found inspiration at the bar. According to legend, Ludwig Bemelmans wrote the first draft of his 1930s book Madeleine not only literally at the bar, but on the back of a menu.

Despite the literary history of Pete’s, the crowd that gathers any night of the week is mostly locals. It is in every sense still very much a neighborhood restaurant. A place where people go if they happen to live within drunk-stumbling distance and they’re looking for something easy, friendly, and inviting.

Pete’s Tavern Facts

  • Pete’s Tavern is located at 129 East 18th Street on the corner of Irving Place.
  • The building that houses Pete’s was built in 1829, and was originally the Portman Hotel.
  • Though Pete’s Tavern claims to be “an official historical landmark”, it is not a designated New York City landmark or listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
  • The name dates to the 1926 purchase by Peter Belles.
  • O. Henry died from cirrhosis of the liver at the age of 47 in 1910.