Courtesy White Horse Tavern
Courtesy White Horse Tavern

The ClassicsNew York

The White Horse Tavern Evolves, But Dylan Thomas Is Always Watching

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The psychic center of the White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village—still, even after decades of changes–is a lifesize portrait of Dylan Thomas, the 130-year-old saloon’s most famous patron, standing in his favorite place: in front of the bar.

Thomas’ expression belies the idea that poets are milquetoast types prone to lying in meadows and clutching daisies. It is fierce, questioning, challenging, very likely the look he gave countless fellow barflies just after the subject of art, politics, love, or life came up — followed by a passionate discussion.

These days, Thomas might not believe his oil-brush eyes. The journalists, novelists, activists, and musicians who were his barroom companions are nowhere to be seen. Neither are the longshoremen that preceded them, or the folk musicians who took his place. The grand old space on Hudson Street, as lived in as any public living room in the city, received new owners in 2019 and was given a thorough polish. There is now a house martini. The meat in the burger comes from celebrity butcher Pat Lafrieda.

“Celebrity butcher!” Thomas might snort, could his portrait talk. “As famous as James Baldwin, as Jack Kerouac, as Bob Dylan?” Those three, all White Horse habitués, enjoyed their heyday well after Thomas drank his final dram at the bar and subsequently died in 1953.

But the poet has held spectral court over the space since his likeness was hung four decades ago and knows and sees all that transpires in the space.

It’s a measure of the watering hole’s enduring legacy that it continues to command attention and respect, despite having one of the most commonplace names in bar history. Type “White Horse Tavern” into Wikipedia and you’ll be given dozen or so entries to select from, including seven noteworthy bars in the United States alone.

 

Bunny Adler's familiar photo of Dylan Thomas at the White Horse bar. // Courtesy White Horse Tavern
Bunny Adler’s familiar photo of Dylan Thomas at the White Horse bar. // Courtesy White Horse Tavern

One, in Newport, R.I., purports to be the nothing less that the oldest operating tavern in the country. There is even a second White Horse Tavern in New York, a far grimmer affair located on a gritty side street in the Financial District. You can thank the once universally popular Scotch blend White Horse for the confusion. There was even a popular 19th-century play titled, “At the White Horse Tavern.”

The current goings-on at this particular White Horse Tavern are certainly less scruffy than they have been in the past. You won’t find any sawdust on the floor. The stools have been given an upgrade. And the mixed drinks are as good as those at any of New York’s dedicated mixology meccas. The old horse, as it were, has been given a grooming.

But the brass rail, pendulum clock, horse-head festooned chandeliers and floor-to-ceiling bay windows are just where Thomas left them. The copious outdoor seating, which consumes half of that block of Hudson, still constitutes the West Village’s largest and liveliest impromptu beer garden. Viewed from the corner of Hudson and West 11th, the entirety still looks like the prow of an ornate wooden booze cruiser. And the iconic neon sign, which was hung in 1946—and, yes, it incorporates a glowing white horse head—remains one of the most recognizable and reliable of New York nightlife beacons. (How far does the equine love affair go? The new beer menu offers Miller High Life ponies.)

 

The front of the Tavern, circa 1961. // Courtesy White Horse Tavern
The front of the Tavern, circa 1961. // Courtesy White Horse Tavern

 

Though probably more used to crackers, cheese and free sandwiches, Thomas probably wouldn’t turn such current bar-food morsels as the shrimp cocktail, fried pickles and French onion soup.

But the complex cocktails would, no doubt, prove a drinking bridge too far. The poet kept his drinking simple. But that’s why there’s “The Dylan Thomas” on the drink list. “Double pour of Jack,” reads the description. “Neat. Water Back. No ice. Don’t ask.”

Robert Simonson writes about cocktails, spirits and bars for The New York Times. He is the author of four books on cocktails, most recently “The Martini Cocktail,” which won a Spirited Award in 2020 and was nominated for a James Beard and an IACP Award. Follow him on Instagram. Follow Resy, too.

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