There are certain New York City bars and restaurants that instantly transport you to a bygone era. Whether it’s through the architecture, decor, menu or all of the above, these classic restaurants in NYC harken back to past generations.
Scattered throughout the city, this list of vintage beauties has stood the test of time and even made appearances in television and movies through the years. If you’re searching for a historic New York experience, you can soak it up at any one of these institutions.
Here is our list of 6 iconic, classic restaurants in NYC that you shouldn’t miss.
This old timey-bar first opened its doors in 1884. P.J. Clarke’s unique, red brick exterior and painted sign make this beloved spot on the corner of 55th and Third Avenue easy to spot. Not much has changed on the inside either with its weathered, dark wood bar and retro checkered table cloths.
But what started as a saloon serving mostly Irish immigrant laborers would later attract the likes of Frank Sinatra, Nat King Kole, and the Kennedys. Nat King Kole even coined their signature burger’s nickname, “The Cadillac of Burgers.”
You can’t stop into to P.J.’s without devouring one of their mouth-watering burgers. Wash it down with a Guinness perfectly poured by one of the veteran bartenders. What’s more, we also recommend adding an order of crispy onion strings.
Tucked inside of The Carlyle hotel, Bemelmans Bar is the ultimate classic New York City cocktail bar. The walls, lined with detailed murals of city scenes, were painted by the bar’s namesake in the 1940s. You may recognize (Ludwig) Bemelman’s work as the creator of Madeline, the children’s book series.
A visit to Bemelmans Bar is an experience like no other. The glamorous lounge features a list of classic cocktails and a few food selections. Each table is given a trio of snacks to nibble on while anticipating their drinks. Then sip on perfectly concocted martinis, Manhattans, and other cocktails as you get swept up by the bar’s charm.
In the center of the room you’ll spot the piano, where legendary entertainers and jazz musicians have performed through the years. Even director and actor Woody Allen had a long residency here playing clarinet with a New Orleans Jazz Band.
In addition, Bemelmans Bar features live music nightly. Be sure to check their website for more info on performances and cover charges.
Gage & Tollner
Gage & Tollner is currently one of New York’s hottest restaurants, which may surprise some considering it dates all the way back to 1879. The restaurant was recently restored to its gilded age glory in 2021 for its much-anticipated reopening under new ownership.
History buffs and gastronomes will love this Brooklyn establishment where no detail is overlooked. Expect a Don Draper-worthy meal straight out of an episode of Mad Men. Stick to the hits, like a selection of raw bar and your favorite cut of steak paired with a old-school cocktail. Don’t miss the exceptionally buttery Parker House Rolls or delectable Oysters Rockefeller.
Make sure to leave room for dessert, too. The talented pastry chef’s creations, like Baked Alaska – topped with a mountain of toasted Swiss meringue – are incredibly delicious.
Oysters Rockefeller are a classic choice at this famous establishment. Photo credit: Larry Hoffman
Grand Central Oyster Bar
Under its original name, The Oyster Bar opened its doors 1913 in Grand Central Terminal. Now known as Grand Central Oyster Bar, the establishment is celebrated for its unique location and architecture, delicious raw bar, and over 100 years of history.
Spanish architect Rafael Guastavino designed the vaulted entrance to one of the most classic restaurants in NYC, which has mesmerizing curvature and a unique telegraphing effect that earned it the nickname of the “Whispering Gallery.”
Enjoy a colossal selection of New York and New England’s finest seafood and shellfish while visiting the oyster bar. The menu changes daily based on what’s fresh at the Fulton Fish Market. We recommend shooting back oysters by the dozen, doused in lemon with a splash of mignonette sauce.
McSorley’s Old Alehouse
At McSorley’s Old Alehouse there are only two beers to speak of: light and dark. Served up in small glass beer mugs, regulars suggest double fisting at all times.
You can expect to be elbow-to-elbow with your neighbors in the standing room only bar. With sawdust covered floors, this institution feels more like a museum than a saloon at times. Make sure to peruse its artifacts, including wishbones left behind by WWI soldiers in hopes of good fortune and a safe return home.
Even the original bar taps, although no longer in use, remain on display. Supposedly Abraham Lincoln even stopped in for a cold one while in town giving a speech. The history of McSorley’s runs deep, making it truly one of the most classic restaurants in New York.
Remember to pick up cash before visiting, as McSorley’s as it is a cash-only establishment. Most importantly, be sure to abide by their golden rule: Be Good or Be Gone.
Patsy’s Pizzeria is synonymous with New York pizza. Established in 1933 in Harlem, Patsy’s would go on to open multiple pizza parlors throughout the city.
Patsy’s pizzas are Sicilian-style and baked in a coal oven. The coal fire gives a distinct char and flavor to each pie. What’s more, this establishment remains family-owned and recently welcomed a fourth generation to the business.
Don’t overcomplicate your pizza order with too many toppings. Keep it simple with an old-school round or old-fashioned square. Visit the 2nd Avenue location for a more traditional vibe.
Insider’s tip: Hungry for more pizza? Check out our guide to the best pizza in NYC.
Barbara Booras is a Boston native and freelance food & drink writer. She’s spent the last 7+ years in NYC eating her way through the five boroughs. Over the last decade she’s worked in a boutique wine shop, for a Mediterranean specialty food company, and even slung bottles of hot sauces at a New York City holiday market. In addition to being a lover of all things gastronomy, Barbara is an avid runner and recently completed her third marathon. Follow her adventures on Instagram at @favoritenoodle.