High up on Madison Avenue, the stomping grounds of Don Draper dripped with pop culture persuasion, from brutalist lamps to the high contrast, au courant adverts illustrated under their light. However, Mad Men—the timeless TV show about an ad man in 1960s America—garnered accolades by using more than just perfectly positioned props in studios. Manhattan modelled some of its most historic bars and restaurants for the show. These classic haunts, where whiskey-fuelled executives and midtown mistresses were wined and dined, became the signature of Draper & Co.’s retro mise en scène.
Across its seven seasons, these scenes made such an impact on me that I retired a lot of my previous distaste for NYC. My parents are New Yorkers, so ‘nowhere else is like New York,’ I was frequently told throughout my childhood. It often seemed they had a secret they weren’t letting me in on. Unlike them, my childhood had been anchored partly in Texas and partly in Tamil Nadu. As a countrified kid who wanted to be half-John Wayne, half-Rajinikanth, I sensed I might never understand their love for this big city.
Then, in 2007, the show first aired. My father was instantly obsessed, and my mom would even glance up from her book to smile at a familiar purlieu. As immaculately dressed people flitted from glittering bars to elaborate restaurants, my dad would jump out of his seat and exclaim to my mom, “You remember that place?” or to me, “Your Grandma used to love the Italian at that joint!” Even for a wannabe cowboy like myself, it was a struggle to hide my appreciation of the series, and not be captivated by the warm nostalgia that emanated from the TV screen.
Before Mad Men released, my parents took me to NYC once as a kid, and, for some reason, I clung onto the memory of them grumbling about all the great places that were long gone. At the time, it seemed, to my angsty pubescent sensibilities at least, like I had been taken to a graveyard of glory, forced to mourn the absence of places I never had the chance to appreciate; yet through Mad Men, and the enthusiasm it inspired in my parents, I gradually began to understand NYC was not a bone-picked skeleton of the city it once was. You simply had to know exactly where to dig for treasure.
Don Draper might’ve said it best. “Change is neither good nor bad; it simply is.” New York has changed a lot over the years, but like blots of burgundy wine left too long on white linen, the city hasn’t been able to rub out these vestiges of a fine vintage, especially now that Mad Men has immortalised a handful of its steezy survivors. Since I’ve overcome the agita-ridden hurdles of growing up, NYC has become one of my favourite destinations, because as much as New Yorkers complain about the good ol’ joints that bit the dust, they also support restaurants and bars that bookmark interesting chapters of the city’s history.
Four of the most iconic Manhattan-based Mad Men locations are listed below. However, there are many more smattered across the city. My newfound love for classic NYC saloons has led me to quite a few reminiscent of the Mad Men milieu, be it for pints of light and dark ale at McSorley’s, IPAs at the West Village’s White Horse, and pale ales on Gramercy at Old Town Bar. Still, the Mad Men trail feels extra special, especially if you want to walk around town like a dapper Dan in an exquisitely tailored American suit.
The Sterling Cooper gang head to P.J.’s for an after-hours shindig, where Peggy sashays away to Chubby Checker’s “The Twist” as her colleague Pete Campbell gives her a spine-chilling stare.
P.J. Clarke’s opened in 1868 and started serving booze in 1884, predominantly to Irish immigrant labourers. Little did the owner know that his rusty, red brick building would survive the rapidly changing area of 55th Street and Third Avenue to become an anchor of old world charm, hiding in the shade of the steel skyscrapers that now make up Midtown Manhattan.
The laundry list of A-listers that regularly frequented P.J.’s over the years seems almost unfair, but then again, you must be doing something right if you have Frank Sinatra waiting around till last call on Table No. 20, Nat King Cole call your bacon cheeseburger “The Cadillac of burgers!” and Buddy Holly propose to receptionist Maria Elena Santiago in your bar, who (surprise, surprise) said yes.
Don drinks with his lady friend, Bobbie, at Sardi’s, a soirée that ends with a bang when he crashes his car.
Originally known as The Little Room in 1921, its name changed to Sardi’s with a move to 44th street in 1927. The place is now decked with hundreds of actors’ caricatures on its walls, packed to the gills with tourists, and also serves a mean Shrimp Sardi and Spinach Cannoli. Dinner at this eatery is on many an aspiring and successful actors’ bucket list.
Don surprisingly turns down champagne over a dinner date with his young prospect, Bethany Van Nuys. In walks Don’s ex-wife Betty with her new husband and, upon spotting her former spouse’s companion, makes no secret of her icy disdain.
This opulent Italian restaurant on 46th Street claims it is the oldest restaurant in NYC that is still owned by the original founding family. To cover their many other laurels would take all day. The palatial eatery serves up Italian cuisine from Piemonte, the northwestern-most region of Italy. Its interiors could front as a museum, with a decor that actually borrows from regal influences including a Piemontese chandelier that is believed to once have belonged to Italian royalty.
Peggy, unsure of whether her boyfriend Abe is about to break up with her or propose, is asked if she wants to move in with him, over dinner at Minetta’s.
Back in the day, what P.J.’s was to musicians, Minetta, on Macdougal Street, was to writers. The current proprietors of the tavern have definitely benefited from all the legendary writers said to have been some of the joint’s earliest customers. Now it seems unlikely that Lit majors will be able to afford a steeply priced meal at the place that once served affordable cocktails to the likes of E.E. Cummings, Ezra Pound and Ernest Hemingway. But the ambience is worth the price.
Long gone are the days where a bohemian, homeless celebrity like Joe Gould (who coincidentally graduated from Harvard with a degree in Literature) could hold court in the saloon accompanied by artists such as Franz Kline who drew caricatures to sponsor their lengthy bar tabs. Now it is a place to bask in the beauty of the days of yore while sucking on some succulent Bone Marrow, a house speciality.
The Dublin House (225 W 79th St)
Keens Steakhouse (72 W 36th St)
La Grenouille (3 E 52nd St)
Grand Central Oyster Bar (89 E 42nd St)
Julian Manning can usually be found eating a crisp ghee roast with extra podi. The rare times his hands aren’t busy with food, they are wrapped around a mystery novel or the handlebars of a motorcycle. He is Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.