Notes: Bar Culture
Our food and drink editor recalls everything he missed during dry January
Have you ever had a Pickleback? Today, it's a shot of whiskey (commonly Jameson) followed by a pickle brine chaser. The name of the drink is attributed to a Williamsburg, Brooklyn bar circa 2006 where Old Crow bourbon was used, though some credit a Philly iteration as the first documented, while even fewer claim it made its debut in Texas. Truth be told, it isn't that great. Regardless of your opinions on Jameson, the flavors within shouldn't be squelched by an almost-green, salt-concentrated water. Unless, of course, you're at Whiskey Tavern on Baxter Street in Chinatown. Inside the reasonably nice dive, it's a staple for some that matches the decor. A bit dank, a bit fun and ultimately effective.
One block away, you'll find the only karaoke bar I'll be caught dead in. Winnie's hits low to high well. And its signature drink, a Hawaiian punch whose ingredients are indiscernible is so well-received that it made The New Yorker's best cocktails of 2015 list. There's a potency to the concoction, masked by vibrant fruits and some fizz. I think. I never recall. There may be fizz. Regardless, for what it is, there's a core that's been well-considered. A punch isn't held with as much high regard as it once was, despite joining the Sazerac and Gin Fizz in classic cocktail books of old. Like the Pickleback, it's most often associated with mass consumption and rapid intoxication. But Whiskey Tavern and Winnie's serve a purpose in the grand scheme of things.
I am having a dry January. I'm not doing this so that I can talk about it every single day. Though, as I can't stop thinking about it, naturally I talk about it every single day. I know quite a few people who have suspended drinking altogether. That's a feat, and I am not saying what I am doing is anything near that or remarkable for anyone but myself. And yet, for someone who traditionally drinks five days a week, the days that I've already endured carry some weight.
My first week, I didn't go out. I stowed away the bourbon I keep at home and I caught up on films. The second week I was slowly overcome with a desire not for the alcohol itself, but the bar culture. It began with a want for Whiskey Tavern, a place that spawned many memories. It extended to Winnie's, where I saw many a friend take their first legal drink. In the middle of it all, a friend of mine published an ode to dive bars of distinction in the Wall Street Journal, and the emotional floodgates opened. I love hanging out in bars. I love the people that populate various bars. And yes, I like the drinks one leans toward drinking in certain watering holes (I've tried an array of non-alcoholic beers, and they aren't good). All of it reminds me of the multitudes of roles we can play each day—or even identities we can adopt.
Perhaps my favorite bars in New York draw their allure from the hotels they're found in. My first was the Library Bar at the Paramount Hotel and it stuck with me. I watched the Lobby Bar of the Ace Hotel open and held my 25th birthday there almost seven years ago. More often than not, when people propose a group gathering, I affirm that there's no better place than the back garden of the Bowery Hotel. It's quiet, dark by night, and comes with a smattering of international guests and eccentric regulars. I find myself in the lobby of the Marlton at least once a month. The latent coziness and powerful cocktails blur anything anachronistic creeping along. There's no view that's worth dressing up for quite like the Top of the Standard. And Bemelmans Bar at The Carlyle maintains its class today. Need newer? The Clocktower is ideal. Best bar program? The NoMad, of course. Even the Sixty Hotel on the LES turned a hotel bar into a respectable tiki haven.
Tiki bars were, of course, a thing in 2015. The Happiest Hour on the west side may only be matched by Mother of Pearl on the east side. Both also align their drinks with the decor—and encourage fun. It's good to have fun! Bars are fun. Really good bars are fun even without friends. When you get something simple and it's made well, or you get something complex and react with pleasure rather than confusion. With these tiki bars, attention to detail doesn't delay the process. Service is snappy and so is the music. A real laugh riot.
With all the nostalgia circulating in New York, as the city shifts and advances, it's no wonder that speakeasies populate more than a few corners. Unfortunately, some have lost their mystery. Others are overrun on the weekends with loud folks. Remember the back room of Cafe Select? I don't, except that it was easier to get into than downstairs at La Esquina. Perhaps Attaboy still holds its own. I wouldn't know, I haven't been in a while. A place like Mister Fong's has more allure to me. You can tell that the people there really want to be there because it's so far from everything. It's almost a speakeasy in that it is hidden in a neighborhood that most New Yorkers don't even know exists: Two Bridges.
Most of those traditional speakeasies have superb bar programs, but between Dead Rabbit, Porchlight, Pouring Ribbons and Leyenda (hey Brooklyn!), if you want a good cocktail you might as well go to the best. Right? You'd prefer something drawing inspiration from Asia? Bar Goto. Union Square is your area? Dear Irving. Don't want to leave the Upper East Side? Seamstress. Need a dram of something rare? Highlands. Oh, but you work in Flatiron? Flatiron Room.
You've been to the new Dante? There are a dozen variations on negronis. Did you know Mace had the best cocktail at last year's biggest spirits trade show? It was an absinthe colada. Are you aware we are in a bitters craze? Try Amor y Amargo—they also have the best coffee cocktails. Honestly though, let's all just go to Little Branch. It's so quaint.
None of these places are actually where I go when I want private time, a reasonable night or to have fun with a friend. I live in the East Village. Boilermaker is three blocks away. I've written about it twice. I would go for the Christmas lights alone. The other direction is Sophie's. It's a dive worth chatting in or simply listening to other people in. Heading back toward civilization, there's Von. It is perhaps the place I have been to most in this city. They have good, cheap wine for wine people. I'm trying to be a regular at Berlin, underneath 2A (which opened in 1985), where I spent years. There was a month or two where I was a regular at Black Market. And while I'm never there anymore, I have hosted almost all farewell parties at Welcome to the Johnsons, where two bucks gets you an ice-cold PBR. My best friend found the place about seven years ago when she googled "cheapest bars in NYC." There's plastic on the sofa and the beer is served from a fridge.
Most of these are dives of distinction—as Rothbaum coined for that WSJ piece. His most notable is Holiday Cocktail Lounge on St. Marks. And remarkably (for that street), it's great. But the stories of what happened there, from punk rockers to ghosts, make it even more appealing. Or, when life takes me west, Swine makes for an ideal haunt. Much like Winnie's and Whiskey Tavern, former local spots of mine, I feel at home in all of these locations. It doesn't matter if I am on a stool, in a booth or standing.
I lust for all of these places—the ones I go to with frequency and the ones I hit up from time to time. I dream of the people within. I would go to any of them for my first drink after this month of sobriety. Most likely, within a month from the first of February, I will have stopped by a vast percentage of them all—and some in Brooklyn and Miami and Detroit. They're within a certain rotation. Work will take me to one or three a day each week. I have no idea what I will order. I'll go with the flow, suss it out and commit. I am relieved that I do not care what I order. It means the pull of the drink is less important to me than the culture of it all. But I think now you can understand why I am having a sober January. Has everyone been to Polo Bar? No? What about Sunshine Laundry?
Images by David Graver