On a swelteringly hot July day in New York City, I took a look around in Times Square at the hordes of tourists with selfie sticks slowly shuffling shoulder-to-sweat-stained-shoulder. There were people in Pikachu and Transformers costumes pushing for tips from unknowing passersby, and a bombardment of advertisements flashing who knows what. It was, simply, a New Yorker’s hell.
Up until the past couple of years, there were few, if any, escapes. A quick look around for bars, and you’d think your only option was a Coronarita at Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. But thanks to a number of recent bar openings, coupled with the survival of a few hardy stalwarts, surviving Times Square is possible. In fact, it’s a legitimately good place to get a drink.
“Strangely, this is true now,” Zach Mack told me when I asked him if I was crazy for thinking this. Mack is a beer writer and the owner of New York City’s beloved Alphabet City Beer Co. and Taco Vista. He too, took a tone of disbelief. Yet when asked if he would consider opening a bar near Times Square, he said he would consider it “if the rent was right!”
That last bit is a stickler — both for owners and for drinkers. Rents near the “Crossroads of the World” are nearly $2,000 per square foot (this is one of the most visited and most Instagrammed places in the world, after all). The drink prices at both good and bad bars reflect that.
It wasn’t always like this. Times Square was a center of commerce in the decades following its renaming in honor of The New York Times building in 1905, but by the Great Depression it started to slip. It only got worse through the 1980s as it descended into the mess of prostitution, peep shows, and drugs. When Times Square was cleaned up in the Disneyfication years of the 2000s, any bars worth drinking at were largely swept away as well.
“The greatest challenge of operating a bar in Times Square is to be in Times Square,” Salvatore Tafuri, bar director at The Times Square EDITION, says over email. “For many years, New Yorkers in particular have associated Times Square with large food chains, lower quality offerings and a place where it is impossible to have fun, except perhaps for bringing travelers and taking a few selfies.”
Thankfully, Midtown is on the verge of coming full circle as a place locals actively seek out for drinks and entertainment. These are the bars that prove that the streets around Times Square are once again a good place to go out.
1. The Blushing Bar at Valerie
Valerie opened in January 2019, but it evokes the extravagance of the Gilded Age with smoked mirrors, a plush seat cushion ceiling, and murals of burlesque dancers. Head up to the Blushing Bar on the second floor for cocktails in a more intimate setting.
The menu changes with the seasons and the cocktails ($15) play off of the long list of spirits on the back bar. Come with a date and order one of the bottled cocktails for two ($26) like the White Negroni or the classic Negroni made with smoked vermouth. There’s also a customizable Gin & Tonic menu that lets you pair a craft tonic of your choosing with one of the 25-plus gins from more than 10 countries.
For a seat at a table, speak with the hostess by the stairs when you walk in. Reservations can be made in person only, while seats at the bar (there’s no standing) are first come, first served.
Where: 45 W 45th St, New York, NY 10036
2. Jimmy’s Corner
Remember those seedy years of Times Square in the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s? Jimmy’s Corner has withstood it all. Jimmy Glenn, 89, a boxer and trainer who worked with Muhammad Ali and Floyd Patterson, opened Jimmy’s Corner in 1971. It’s still his corner, and he still comes by.
First things first: Don’t come in looking for craft beer, and don’t expect anything other than a well drink. Pay in cash and tip well, as the drinks ($3 to $5) are the cheapest you’re going to find in most of New York City, let alone Times Square. Fans of a cheap drink among friendly people are welcome, as is anyone who wants to sit and have a Boilermaker by themself.
Spot Jimmy’s Corner by the unassuming green awning out front. The bar is narrow and can get three people deep back to the wall after work, but you can head toward the back past the photos and memorabilia of Jimmy and other legends if you’re looking for a bit more room. The best experience, however, is to get there early enough for a stool at the bar where you can listen to the R&B and soul playing from the jukebox while you talk to the regulars and passively watch sports on the TV.
Where: 140 W 44th St, New York, NY 10036
3. The Polynesian
The Polynesian opened in the summer of 2018 to much fanfare among tiki aficionados and bar lovers. Located on the third floor of the Pod Hotel, it’s run by Major Food Group with famous tiki bartender Brian Miller at the helm.
“I want to bring the Polynesian islands to the island of Manhattan,” Miller told The New York Times before the opening. “Just because we live in an urban jungle doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate that we live on an island.”
An island, of course, whose commercial overlords worship the idol known as Times Square.
“The biggest challenge we faced when opening The Polynesian was the fact that we are in Times Square, which many considered to be a ‘no-go’ zone,” general manager Emily Collins says over email. “While it is popular with tourists, most locals studiously avoid the area, except perhaps to catch a Broadway show. And the area doesn’t exactly conjure up images of fine dining and elevated cocktails, at least not yet.”
Rather than shy away, The Polynesian decided to take an area that’s underserved and make it compelling. The Polynesian is 4,900 square feet and can hold 200 people between the inside bar and outside terrace. The interior feels like a flashback to a different era with bamboo ceilings, patterned teakwood floors, and plants everywhere. If not a different era, then at least Jack Sparrow’s paradise dreamhouse.
The drinks range from originals created by Miller and the bar staff like the Martiniki ($17, made with multiple rums, gin, pamplemousse, and absinthe) to tiki classics like Planter’s Punch ($17, made with rum, grenadine, falernum, bitters, and lime). Large-format drinks to share are served, like many of the drinks on the menu, in custom glassware. Try the Exotica Bowl ($85, made with kaffir-infused rums, curry, coriander, ginger, lemongrass, and more) that’s served in a table-hogging clam shell. While rum is the focus, you’ll find tiki drinks made with gin, mezcal, whiskey, and brandy. These heady drinks are tempered by bar food like the Pu Pu Platter and crab rangoon.
“In these stressful times, we can all set aside our differences and come together amicably around an exotic rum cocktail served in an enormous clam shell,” Collins says.
Where: 400 W 42nd St, New York, NY 10036
4. The Rum House
The Rum House is not exactly an old Times Square bar, but it’s not exactly new either. The team behind Tribeca’s Ward III opened the modern Rum House in 2011 in the same location as the old Rum House, a dingy bar open since the early 1970s that was beloved by Broadway performers and theatergoers.
That location is right next to the lobby of the Edison Hotel. New York Magazine once described it as “a veneer of sleaze sets it a world apart from your classic martini-doling hotel bar…it’s one of the few remaining destinations near Times Square where a middle-aged lush from Dubuque can go to drown his sorrows in cheap liquor and plastic bowls of pretzels.” But it was described as such in a beloved way that appreciated the jukebox-singing crowd and piano-playing regulars eager to play a song on the keys in the corner. The kind of way that put it on Esquire’s best bars in America list in 2010 as writer Tom Chiarella’s “favorite dark bar.”
While the modern Rum House couldn’t be further from the old one in terms of vibe, it’s still a Times Square favorite. The floors are tile and the accents are dark wood, while the bar is copper-topped. The window looking out to the passing Times Square crowd still has drapes that are an eye-catching red, but now there’s bright lettering on the outside telling everyone what they’re looking into.
The drinks are better, too. As the name suggests, the focus here is on rum. Cocktails ($15 and up) are made with flavorful rums favored by bartenders, like The Real McCoy and Plantation 3 Stars. Some rums are common, others are rare and cost $150 a pour. For a taste without the price, there’s a happy hour from 12:00 to 6:00 PM with Daiquiris and Rum Punches for $10 and $5 Narragansetts.
Where: 228 W 47th St, New York, NY 10036
5. The Times Square EDITION
You can spend many hours at any of the bars on this list, but for an entire night out in Times Square, you don’t even have to leave The Times Square EDITION, a hotel that opened in 2019 with multiple bars and restaurants on site.
To start, there’s the Green Room in the fine dining restaurant 701West. The menu is filled with 18 original cocktails by bar director Salvatore Tafuri and his team, while a roaming Champagne trolley curated by wine director and advanced sommelier Amy Racine provides the bubbles. The drinks are grounded in the classics while staying true to the upscale location.
Then there’s The Terrace and the Lobby Bar, where you can find Broadway-inspired drinks and low-alcohol spritzes. Finally, there’s Paradise Club, a cabaret with a House of Yes show (which runs with a Manhattan cocktail trolley) that leads into a full-on dance club. You can choose dinner with the show for $195 (which includes caviar, tuna, duck, ribs, and more) or sit at the bar for $95 (where you’ll get appetizers and snacks). The club starts going at 11:00 PM Thursday through Saturday, and entry is free.
You’re not going to save any money drinking at any of The Times Square EDITION’s bars, but you’re going to have a great time spending it.
Where: 701 7th Ave, New York, NY 10036
6. Beer Culture
No, this isn’t the best beer bar in Midtown. For that, head up to As Is on 50th Street and 10th Avenue. This is, however, far and away the best beer bar you’ll find in a five-minute walk from where the ball drops on New Year’s Eve.
Beer Culture has 14 rotating taps (check the website for what’s currently pouring) and multiple large fridges with cans and bottles to drink on site or to take home with you. The selection ranges from local to obscure, though well-drunk beer nerds shouldn’t expect too many unfamiliar finds. It’s a spot to go before a show, or when you’re looking for an escape.
The beer to order here is whatever the bartender sounds most excited about. Other patrons are also likely to be knowledgeable about what’s on stock if you’re the type of person who likes speaking with strangers at bars. There’s even wine for the person in the group who doesn’t drink beer (though even non-beer drinkers can find a beer they’ll like here). For food, try elevated bar snacks like nachos or a hot dog.
Where: 328 W 45th St, New York, NY 10036
7. Dear Irving on Hudson
Another newcomer to the scene as of January 2019, Dear Irving on Hudson is the Times Square location of the original cocktail haven Dear Irving in Gramercy Park. With cocktail bar credit to uphold, it needed to be more than just another good cocktail bar — and it succeeded.
“We didn’t want it to be another anonymous Times Square bar, but instead something people would want to return to,” Meaghan Dorman, bar director and partner at Dear Irving on Hudson, says.
It’s located on the 40th and 41st floors of the Aliz Hotel, and has four balconies, each with a different view of the Manhattan skyline. Inside, the bar is Mad Men-class-meets-modern with floor-to-ceiling windows and plush, copper-orange couches. Reservations are taken, but the bar welcomes walk-ins.
The drinks menu has the obligatory classics along with wine, beer, and spirits. It also has an “Ode to The Empire State” section ($18 each), which focuses on cocktails made with New York-made spirits, like the Vice Versa made with New York Distilling Co.’s Dorothy Parker Gin and the Panorama Daiquiri made with Owney’s Rum. Take things into your own hands with the 007 Mission, where you get to “play ‘M’ & direct our bar staff.” For food, there are bites like the Lobster Tail Bun ($19) and rock shrimp tempura ($18).
“Visitors’ trips often come with the pressure of living up to the expectations of an NYC experience,” Dorman says, “and the staff thrives on making it excellent and showing off our city’s cocktail culture.”
Where: 310 W 40th St, New York, NY 10018