There’s a certain exploratory sensation experienced when strolling down NYC’s Freemans Alley for the first time, angling for the glowing lights of Freemans Restaurant in the distance. For the quality of its food and the character of its design, the restaurant has become a city staple. Its charm hasn’t faded over the years; the venue continues to deliver wonder. And after all this time, there’s one more new surprise in tow: a petite cocktail shrine by the name of Banzarbar. Anyone who’s been to Freemans will wonder how it’s possible that they managed to tuck a speakeasy into the wood-dominated, dual-floor establishment. And only when you’re comfortably inside the room does it all make sense. Beyond the novelty of a bar hidden upstairs at a restaurant that’s more or less already hidden, this is an exception cocktail program and it goes so far as to offer a tasting menu that pairs food with low ABV mixed drinks. It’s worth it.
At just over 20 seats, the reservation-only room accommodates only a few (with no one standing). As Freemans founder William Tigertt explains to us, “The space previously was storage and a service bar. The staff always liked to hang out back there and it was cozy, so we expanded on that and built out an intimate private bar.” BANZARE, from which the bar name was derived, stands for “British Australian New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition.” It’s a wild concept that works in the tight quarters. “We didn’t want to be wed to one specific area or region,” he says of the thematic through-line. “By doing the explorer concept we could go in different directions, spices, spirits, and food. We liked a nautical-themed bar, but almost every ship part or sea related name has already been taken, so we went for a deep cut with the Antartica explorer name.”
Eryn Reece developed the bar program and worked with the design team to bind together every sensory end. Nothing is left untouched as Reece’s meticulousness yields excitement with layers continuing to reveal themselves with each sip, sniff and glance. “When we talked about this concept I got excited and immediately thought of the Dutch East Trading Company and the Silk Road,” she says. “Both offered so many flavors and spices to pursue. For example we have cocktails with turmeric, curry leaves and miso.”
An yet Reece is working within the identity of an already well known restaurant. It had its impact. “It was a little hard at first. This establishment is always bustling,” Reece explains. “Our goal for this space was to feel different and transportative. We tried to give the space a very different identity. We did this from the style of service we offered to what we carried on the back bar, sourcing spirits that aren’t found commonly. The menu, while interesting and different, I tried to downplay the ingredients slightly with vague descriptions. We did this so that while someone may be a regular at Freemans they won’t feel totally out of their element when they walk into Banzarbar. They may still have a question or two but the ingredients are easily recognizable. We also have a seated only policy so we wanted everything else to be as welcoming and friendly as possible.”
And of course, nothing should lure cocktail enthusiasts quite like the pairing menu. “We wanted to offer something a little different,” she adds. “It’s Manhattan and there are tons of people opening up cocktail bars every week. So offering the tasting menu was that for us. As far as the process goes its a ‘give and take’ between the kitchen and bar. Since it is a drink-focused tasting menu, I put out drinks first, then Chef gets inspired and comes up with a dish. I have also gone back to the drawing board on a drink because Chef put out a beautiful dish that I felt the drink was a touch too aggressive for. So its quite fun to go back and tweak to find the perfect compliment and balance.”
Anybody visiting will note the importance of glassware and presentation accompanying every drink. Of course shape matters in a vessel, but so does texture. “Taavo and Will [the owners] had somewhat loose ideas of what they wanted as far as aesthetics and design,” she adds. “Then I got to run with it which was really fun. As for the earthenware cup [for the Albatross], we wanted to bring in something that was primitive. We wanted to showcase different styles of craftsmanship that you might have encountered if you were exploring during that time period. We talked about having the beautiful Dutch blue and white ceramic design being something that was a big piece for us. You can find that in our ‘Fortune & Glory’ which is our hot drink and served like tea service, we also found vintage egg cups with a similar design that we use as our shot glasses . As far as our etched glassware we were inspired by all the 18th century beautifully cut crystal that was being used in England.” To pick a favorite from the menu might just be an impossibility, and a visit is most certainly encouraged, but the recipe for the Albatross acts as a microcosm to the true cocktail exploration taking place at Banzarbar.
1.50 oz Glenlivet Founders Reserve Scotch
0.50 oz Redbreast 12yr Irish Whiskey
0.50 oz Lustau Oloroso Sherry
Tsp Rapa Giovanni Ratafia Black Cherry
0.50 Tsp Reisetbauer Hazelnut Eau de Vie
Stir the ingredients. Serve in an Earthenware Cup. Garnish with Port Askaig Scotch Rinse. Present on a Leather Banzarbar Coaster
Albatross image by Eric Medsker, all other images courtesy of Freemans