Paris has long been a haven for expat Americans seeking the French brand of laissez-faire freedom, whether artistic (as in the clutch of writers, painters, and musicians who flooded the Left Bank) or, um, alcoholic (as in those who fled America when Prohibition set in). At Harry’s New York Bar, the most storied expat bar in all of Paris, if not Europe, these two groups of freedom-seekers converged.
Harry Mac Elhone was a bar owner in Manhattan when he could sense the Prohibition movement gathering steam, so he up and moved his bar piece by piece to Paris. It turned out to be a wise move: the bar has now been around for “99 years of cheers,” having opened on Thanksgiving Day in 1911.
Over the past century, Harry’s has racked up numerous claims to fame: the Bloody Mary was allegedly invented here, the likes of Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald were well-liquored regulars, and George Gershwin famously penned the score for An American in Paris (how fitting a title) on napkins in the downstairs cabaret. All the while, Harry’s has been unapologetic in reeling in the Anglophones (a bit of 1924 advertising gave the bar’s address in transliteration–“Sank Roo Doe Noo”–so English-speaking arrivals could communicate their destination to the cabbie without knowing a lick of French).
Today, this quintessential Old Boy’s bar is scrupulous about keeping things “just as they’ve always been,” which amounts to a delicious mix of the classy and the seedy. The bartenders wear white coats, but the bar itself is on the grimy side and the service can be downright rude (though some claim those are both key elements of Harry’s charm). Paneled walls are decked in decrepit “vintage” paraphernalia, while the lighting remains notoriously crummy. Despite its rough-around-the-edges reputation, Harry’s retains its genteel sensibilities, so try to wear something smart casual. (Evening arrivals have been known to be turned away for not looking smart enough.)
Once you’re in the door, the focus is squarely on imbibing. In addition to Bloody Marys, Harry’s also lays claim to inventing classic cocktails including the Side Car and the Cosmopolitan. And though I can’t say if Harry’s has the best martini in Europe (I haven’t finished trying them all yet!), it’s definitely one of the finalists. I must admit I love soaking up the rather seamy ambiance at the well-worn bar and watching the local characters get their drink on. It’s quite a mix–everyone from wizened barflys to suited professionals from nearby offices to overeager tourists make every hour happy hour.
If the tourist trap vibes get to be a little too much of a downer, head down to the cave-like cellar cabaret, which offers a bit more refinement. The wee-hours music (everything from techno to piano, Tuesday-Saturday 10:00am-3:00pm) draws well-dressed 20-30-somethings for low-key drinking and dancing. But when it comes to the menu, don’t expect too much sophistication. The house specialty food-wise is none other than…a hot dog. Très Americain!
Read more about Harry’s New York Bar in Our Paris Guide
Rachel Levin contributed to this story