After our set up day before the AES Convention in New York recently, my colleague, Todd, suggested we go have a beer at a West SoHo landmark, the Ear Inn (see map). He said, "You'll love this place, Will. It's a great old Irish bar."
The Ear Inn may be Manhattan's oldest bar. The building it's housed in - the James Brown House - was built sometime around 1817, and possibly even before that. James Brown, legend has it, was an ex-slave who fought in the American Revolutionary War. He sold tobacco in the ground floor of the house, which is now the Ear Inn, until he sold it in 1832. I believe it became an apothecary shop after that.
Even though the sign above the entrance of the Ear Inn says "Est. 1817 A.D.", it appears it never became a bar until the late 1880's when an Irish immigrant by the name of Thomas Cloke turned the shop into a place where longshoreman could come for a beer and some food after work. In fact, there's a historical sign next to the Ear Inn that shows where the levee of the Hudson River once was. Through land reclamation, the banks of the Hudson were moved about 200 yards to the west of the Ear Inn.
How the place got to be called the Ear Inn is sort of strange, but interesting. The West Soho area was nearly abandoned when the commercial waterfront area moved to other areas of New York. In the early 70's, a bohemian lifestyle movement was happening in the area. A young college student by the name of Rip Hayman found the building in complete disarray. Cleaning it up and fixing some broken windows, Hayman and some others lived in the building while publishing a music magazine called "The Ear".
In 1972, the building was put on the list of historical landmarks named by the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission. Hayman eventually bought the building and instead of jumping through bureaucratic hoops to get the OK to redo the building's facade and putting up a new sign out front, he just painted over part of the "B" on the "Bar Inn" sign. Suddenly, it became the "Ear Inn".
Today, Martin Sheridan and Jerry Walker co-own the Ear Inn, along with the James Brown House. They've made numerous improvements to the property and the second floor is a combination private party room/historical museum.
The Ear Inn has a delightful mix of people who frequent the place. In the mid to late afternoon, you'll find some older people who sit in the place and catch up on the neighborhood gossip. As the work day ends, a mix of both blue collar and white collar workers converge on the place to have a beer before going home. Then later in the evening, the hip crowd shows up for drinks and food.
With the weather unseasonably warm for early October, we sat outside in an area along the sidewalk as the sun was setting over the hills in New Jersey. I went inside to order some beers for Todd, our other colleague Simon, and myself. I was surprised to find they didn't have Smithwick's beer either on tap or available in a bottle. But I was pleasantly surprised to find they had Sierra Nevada Pale Ale on tap. So I got one of those. And I got a Guinness for Todd and a Boddington's for Simon.
While I was waiting to order, I got swept up in a conversation with two older guys sitting at the bar. Both had obviously been in the bar for a good portion of the afternoon and they were having a good time. Standing there talking while waiting on my order, I got a good look around the place. The crowd seemed friendly enough and the decor made the place look like what I would call an "elegant dive bar".
I really didn't get a chance to take a look at the Ear Inn's menu, but I was told they have the usual bar food including burgers, sandwiches and appetizers. And it's very good. Todd, who grew up on Prince Edward Island, says the P.E.I. mussels and clams they serve are excellent.
After a couple three beers, Todd's girlfriend from NYC - Jennifer - and our Focal Professional dealer from Los Angeles - Fred Z (that's it, just Fred Z) - met up with us so we could go out to dinner. We thought about having dinner at the Ear, but decided to go to another restaurant down the way. Besides, it looked like there was going to be a wait to get a table.
We moved on, but came back after dinner because Simon left his laptop computer outside next to where we were seated. Fully thinking that it wouldn't be there when we got back to the Ear Inn, Simon was bummed out. But unbelievably, it was still there - a full two hours after he left it at the same exact spot where he found it. In celebration, we had to have one more beer at the bar.
The New York Times once called the Ear Inn "a dump with dignity." There's a lot of history in and around the Ear Inn and it's a cool, friendly neighborhood bar. It's fun and relaxed - exactly what I look for in a bar in which to unwind. I'd go back there in a moment's notice.