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Ask a historian: What’s the oldest bar in Brooklyn?

January 14, 2020 John B. Manbeck
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Rich from Marine Park asks: “What is the oldest bar in Brooklyn?”

That’s easily answered, Rich, but there are a few caveats that enter into my answer: Do you mean existing bar? Are distilleries included? What do you mean by “bar”?

The oldest still functioning bar is the Brooklyn Inn, which opened in 1851, formerly known as the Boerum Hill Café, located at Hoyt and Bergen streets. It’s a beautiful watering hole and just that. They do not serve food (you can bring take outs) but a room for games is in the back.

The second oldest is Peter Luger’s, which opened in Williamsburg as Charles Luger’s Café, Billiards and Bowling Alley in 1876. His brother, Peter, took it over in 1877. A decade later Teddy’s Bar and Grill, serving Peter Doelger’s beer, opened at 99 Berry St. Doelger’s brewery, started on the Lower East Side in 1859, moving to Brooklyn in 1863.

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But drinking in Brooklyn preceded the 19th century. The earliest record of selling spirits goes to Robert Hollis, who was licensed in 1668 to sell hard drink in the Village of Breuckelen. The St. George Tavern opened in 1774 by the Brooklyn wharf, which one might assume is on the shores of the East River. Eventually the name was adopted for the St. George Hotel. And then there was the King’s Naval Brewery in 1783 where, presumably, Brooklyn tars found their spirits.

Brooklyn Inn. Photo: John Manbeck/Brooklyn Eagle

Hezekiah Pierrepont, the founder of Brooklyn Heights, bought a distillery located on the East River, near the entrance to today’s Brooklyn Bridge Park from Philip Livingston. He operated it between 1803 and 1819, when he closed it due to increasing competition.

Will Anderson in his book “The Breweries of Brooklyn” cites William Johnson’s brewery on 49 Front St. in 1822. By 1824, the Terhune brothers opened Coney Island’s first public house (pub) as the Coney Island House. From there, we get the “Coney Island head” on beer.

The mid-19th century influx of Germans to the Eastern District of Brooklyn — Williamsburg, Bushwick and Greenpoint — altered Brooklyn’s beer history. By the end of the Civil War, more than 45 breweries opened in Brooklyn. Each of them had its own bar and many featured a beer garden. The names remain legendary: Budweiser (1849) — no relation to today’s brewery — then Federal (1854), Congress (1855), Liebmann’s Sons/Rheingold (1855), Otto Huber (1861), Peter Doelger (1863), Edelbrau (1868), Piel Brothers (1883) and Trommers (1896). I must add Brooklyn Beer, founded by Steve Hindy in the 1980s.

The hotels in Brooklyn Heights all had roof cocktail lounges in the 1930s: St. George Hotel, The Bossert and The Towers, reports Robert Furman in his book “Brooklyn Heights.” When Coney Island became the rage, Irish bars lined The Bowery there: Lane’s Irish House, The Shamrock House and Shea’s Galway House.

One of the oldest 20th century operating bars is Farrell’s in Park Slope, opened in 1933. Great joy! One of Brooklyn’s legendary chop houses and bar is being restored. In early January 2020, Gage & Tollner is re-opening on Fulton Street. Founded in 1879, it survived over a century serving Brooklyn’s elite. Then it closed and was downgraded. Now, new faces are restoring it to 19th century landmarked splendor.

Finally, there’s the Brooklyn Bar on Remsen Street, which opened in 1849. But that’s legal, not liquid.

Ask a Historian is written by John B. Manbeck, the former Brooklyn Borough Historian. To find answers to your questions about our fair borough and its history, fill out the form below. 

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