OLD TOWN BAR, Union Square

by Kevin Walsh

I was first introduced to the Old Town Bar, 45 East 18th Street between Broadway and Park Avenue South, on a sweltering summer afternoon in 1981, in the 99th year of its existence. I was working on 5th Avenue at a small textbook publisher, and one of my friends worked in the same building for a different company. It was my first professional year at work out of college, when I learned how to drink without getting drunk (after many unsuccessful attempts at not getting drunk). This was decades before I began a professional appreciation of New York’s odd nooks and crannies and bits of original surviving infrastructure for forgotten-ny.com and the book of the same name, so I didn’t fully appreciate Old Town as the incredible 19th Century survivor that it was, but rather for its ice cold beer and arctic air conditioning.

I have visited Old Town dozens of times since—I’m not what you’d call a regular, but rather an appreciator; I’m there with friends around the holidays more than any other time of year (and thus haven’t sampled the arctic air conditioning recently). During a recent holiday season I went with two friends, neither of which I had laid eyes on before, but met both through Facebook: one a native New Yorker, the other visiting from England. Its red and green neon sign still beckoned—neon signs are becoming rare in New York and overhanging sidewalk signs even rarer. Not much else has changed at Old Town since 1981, but in this case, that’s one of the highest compliments that can be bestowed.

More on the Old Town in Splice Today

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Greg Clark November 3, 2022 - 10:25 pm

I started going there at about the same time as you did, before it was cool, which I date to its appearance in the Letterman opening credits.

William P. Schiappa November 3, 2022 - 11:11 pm

Enjoy reading about the Establishments from my Era!

christopher thomas brady November 4, 2022 - 11:20 am

Theres a little button on the wall in each booth that you pressed for service
so we pressed it and waited.And waited…….And waited…….

Key Pete November 4, 2022 - 4:25 pm

I always loved that this bar appeared often as “Riff’s” on the sitcom ‘Mad About You,’ inside of which (not the real inside, but a set that looked nothing like it) worked the ditziest waitress know to man (“Ursula”).

Brian Black November 4, 2022 - 10:24 pm

Good times. I used to love eating at the bar, watching the action on the dumbwaiter.

Dan November 7, 2022 - 2:46 pm

I lived two blocks away during the late 1970s, when the neighborhood was still a quiet backwater, Tad’s Steaks was still serving quasi-inedible food on 14th Street, and Union Square Park was largely ruled by junkies. The Old Town was almost always quiet whenever I stopped in. It was like traveling back through time. Unfortunately, the NYU frat boys and trust fund kids who began packing the place during the 1990s ruined it as an evening destination. The last time I was there, a drunken party girl threw up all over the tile floor next to the bar. Amateurs!


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