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Fat Guy

The five best cocktail destinations in NYC

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thoughts:

A. my taxonomy of NY Cocktail bars would go like this:

1. PDT, D&C, Pegu, M&H, Flatiron/Clover. Little Branch gets an honorable mention but it suffers from some of the same flaws as the restaurant bars below.

2. Next after the big five (six) are the top restaurant bars. Tailor, Bobo, Elattaria and Grayz. Each of these places (Tailor is of course, very unique) has an excellent list but you can only go off menu if one particular bartender is working (and Eben's not usually downstairs so you can't really do that at Tailor). Naren for Bobo, Barry for Grayz. Note to slkinsey et al, neither Bobo nor Grayz's current cocktail programs bear any relationship to their original ones. you also may not find an accurate list online. they both brought in excellent people later in the game who have raised standards drastically. Naren, for one, is well-known in the NY cocktail scene....and at least one egullet regular, Mayur, besides myself is regularly drinking there.

3. a level below this you have the places purporting to make the classics and/or new drinks of distinction. each of these places does some things right and others very wrong. they are: Angel's Share/B-Flat, Employees Only, The Hideaway, Blue Owl, Bar Milano, Rayuela and a couple others. basically, any Charlotte Voisey or Junior Merino consulted place...or any Danny Meyer restaurant is at this level as well.

4. after that you have complete crap.

B. people can surprise you anywhere. for example, I was at Kingswood a couple weeks ago and ordered a rye manhattan. the bartender then chilled the glass, found the angostura, and stirred. (much more care than they take normally.) I've experienced this elsewhere as well.

C. White Star is terrific but not really a cocktail bar.

D. I've only been to the Randolph once...and Sasha was making cocktails. I don't know what it's like normally.

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I think that was a great post (except that I don't get the appeal of White Star, another topic entirely).

The only thing I'd say is that to me, Tailor is different from the other restaurant bars. As Nathan notes, it's unique. I don't care about going off-menu at Tailor, because the menu itself is so interesting. The bar at Tailor is like a restaurant, almost, in that you go there to have that menu.

As for the rest of the restaurants, you hit the problem. Take Grayz. Obviously, I'm a big fan of Barry's there. But you can't consider Grayz a "cocktail destination", because if Barry isn't there you're SOL cocktail-wise.


Edited by Sneakeater (log)

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yes, but with the top restaurant bars you at least know that if you stay on-list, you'll have well-made drinks. both Barry and Naren (and Eben obviously) have maintained quality across the board when it comes to the house list. heck, Naren even has them jiggering vodka sodas (from the bottle, no gun) at Bobo.

but yeah, that's a huge difference between tiers one and two (another is the sheer obsessiveness of the big five (six).

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So nobody thinks Eleven Madison Park has a worthy cocktail program? Or the Modern for that matter?

see my tier three comments above.

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thoughts:

A.  my taxonomy of NY Cocktail bars would go like this:

1.  PDT, D&C, Pegu, M&H, Flatiron/Clover.  Little Branch gets an honorable mention but it suffers from some of the same flaws as the restaurant bars below.

2.  Next after the big five (six) are the top restaurant bars.  Tailor, Bobo, Elattaria and Grayz.  Each of these places (Tailor is of course, very unique) has an excellent list but you can only go off menu if one particular bartender is working (and Eben's not usually downstairs so you can't really do that at Tailor).  Naren for Bobo, Barry for Grayz.  Note to slkinsey et al, neither Bobo nor Grayz's current cocktail programs bear any relationship to their original ones.  you also may not find an accurate list online.  they both brought in excellent people later in the game who have raised standards drastically.  Naren, for one, is well-known in the NY cocktail scene....and at least one egullet regular, Mayur, besides myself is regularly drinking there. 

3.  a level below this you have the places purporting to make the classics and/or new drinks of distinction.  each of these places does some things right and others very wrong.  they are:  Angel's Share/B-Flat, Employees Only, The Hideaway, Blue Owl, Bar Milano, Rayuela and a couple others.  basically, any Charlotte Voisey or Junior Merino consulted place...or any Danny Meyer restaurant is at this level as well.

4.  after that you have complete crap.

B.  people can surprise you anywhere.  for example, I was at Kingswood a couple weeks ago and ordered a rye manhattan.  the bartender then chilled the glass, found the angostura, and stirred.  (much more care than they take normally.)  I've experienced this elsewhere as well.

C.  White Star is terrific but not really a cocktail bar.

D.  I've only been to the Randolph once...and Sasha was making cocktails.  I don't know what it's like normally.

Name dropper :smile: .

What should we call White Star - a neighborhood place where you can only get what the bartender wants to serve you? Sounds like the Big Night of bars.


Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

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How come Dale DeGroff no longer gets much play? Like Sneakeater, I remember going to Blackbird and I marveled at cocktails made with, for example, fresh raspberries. He seems to be an elder of the movement, and he's still working, but do any of the places he works with now have good programs? Where does Dale fit into the larger picture?


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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How come Dale DeGroff no longer gets much play? Like Sneakeater, I remember going to Blackbird and I marveled at cocktails made with, for example, fresh raspberries. He seems to be an elder of the movement, and he's still working, but do any of the places he works with now have good programs? Where does Dale fit into the larger picture?

variable. Gin Lane was just awful. just awful. very much a "take the money and run"...some of the house drinks he made for Dell'Anima are better than decent. others aren't.

he's the grand-daddy of them all...and seen as such. but people have definitely moved to a point of obsessiveness that he didn't. but everyone reads his books.

the thing about "cocktail consulting" is that at most it means the original recipes given to the restaurant/bar were competent. it doesn't say anything about the execution.

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Okay I get it now.

To expand a bit on Nathan's comments: Places like Bobo, Elettaria, etc. are places where you can go there on a certain night and avail yourself of a cocktailian heavy hitter (Naren at the former, Brian at the latter). Other nights, you must avail yourself of the list and hope that whoever is back there is going to make it properly. In general, with places with "consultant" cocktail lists, or where there isn't someone on-premises every night who cares about the cocktail program, there is a general decline from great at the start to not-so-great further down the line (e.g., 5 Ninth).

Notwithstanding the foregoing, I would still "rank" these places higher than places such as the USHG or BR Guest places, because at least you can go to, e.g., Elettaria when Brian is there and experience the full monte with one of the City's best shakers. The USHG and BR Guest places often have cocktails designed by someone very good, but that guy isn't going to be in the house mixing the drinks and riffing up new ones. More to the point, that's not really the goal of the cocktail programs at these places. The goal is to have an offering of interesting-but-widely-appealing cocktails that play into the food menu and restaurant's theme.

To make an example, let's look at Tabla. Here is their menu:

Purana Fashioned Elijah Craig 12 year Bourbon & St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram

Rye Smile Ginger Infused Old Overholt Rye, Fresh Lemon Juice & Soda

Indian Sangria Red Wine, A Blend of Spirits, Fresh Fruits & Spice

Thai Basil Bliss Sauza Blanco Tequila, Fresh Thai Basil, Pineapple & Sparkling Wine

Hang Thyme Hangar One Buddha’s Hand Citron & Fresh Thyme

Tabla Libre House Spiced Rum, GUS Dry Cola & Fresh Lime

Watermelon Mojito Cruzan Light Rum, Fresh Mint, Watermelon & Lime

Tablatini Skyy Citrus with Lemongrass-Infused Fresh Pineapple Juice

Lots o’ Passion Passion Fruit Purée with Vodka & Lime Juice

Masala Mary Spiced Tomato Juice with Ketel One & Chef Floyd’s Pickled Onions

Pomegranate Gimlet Pomegranate Juice with Plymouth Gin & Fresh Lime Juice

Tamarind Margarita Sauza Blanco Tequila, Luxardo Triplum, Tamarind, Fresh Lime & Orange

Kachumber Kooler Green Chillies, Cilantro, Cucumber & Plymouth Gin

This must be a fairly current list, because St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram hasn't been on the market that long. This is just not a menu that is interesting to a cocktailian, and none that I know would make a trip to Tabla to avail themselves of these drinks. I can't think of a single one of these I would order if it were on the menu at D&C.


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variable.  Gin Lane was just awful.  just awful.  very much a "take the money and run"...some of the house drinks he made for Dell'Anima are better than decent.  others aren't.

he's the grand-daddy of them all...and seen as such.  but people have definitely moved to a point of obsessiveness that he didn't.  but everyone reads his books.

the thing about "cocktail consulting" is that at most it means the original recipes given to the restaurant/bar were competent.  it doesn't say anything about the execution.

I agree with your last paragraph, but take issue with the "take the money and run" characterization. Acting as a consultant doesn't mean you have control over decisions that management makes, including how to keep standards high and train staff.


Edited by daisy17 (log)

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How come Dale DeGroff no longer gets much play? Like Sneakeater, I remember going to Blackbird and I marveled at cocktails made with, for example, fresh raspberries. He seems to be an elder of the movement, and he's still working, but do any of the places he works with now have good programs? Where does Dale fit into the larger picture?

It's difficult to put this all in the proper context, and yet be sure to give Dale the huge credit he deserves...

I imagine cocktail culture as being like an upward curve. When Dale started, it was at the very narrow part of the curve. There was practically no awareness or interest in cocktail culture. He created a lot of that in New York from scratch. But you have to remember that Dale's movement-starting turn in the Rainbow Room began twenty years ago! And he was already ten years into his bartending career. Blackbird was nine years ago, and the curve was still only a bit fatter than it was when he began. People like Audrey and Sasha and Julie were able to capitalize on the ground that Dale laid, and they had the advantage of working in a fatter part of the curve, and one that has curved upwards dramatically in only the last 3 years.

At this point, however, it's a bit late in Dale's career for him to be owning/managing a bar and shaking cocktails several nights a week. As a father of the movement, he wasn't in a position to benefit from the resurgent interest in cocktails the way people like Audrey and Sasha and Julie have been able to do, because there wasn't anything to benefit from as yet -- they hadn't grown the curve sufficiently. So, at this point, the way to get some benefit is to do consulting gigs -- lend your name and expertise to places that want it, and then walk away with money in your pocket. The reality, however, is that places with consultant lists are usually not very good. They may have a few nice drinks designed by the consultant, but unless there is someone there who cares about the program, manages training and quality, ads to the list, and all those things, it's often a fairly rapid slide to mediocrity. In this sense, it's no different than restaurants that have a name chef come in who consults on the menu and then takes off shortly after opening to his next gig. For this reason, there isn't too much excitement when one hears about a place opening with a "Dale Degroff list and Dale Degroff-trained staff." This isn't a reflection on Dale at all, but rather a reflection on the nature of consulting gigs. I have no doubt that, were Dale to open a "signature Dale DeGroff bar" where he was there five nights a week personally managing, recruiting and training the staff, designing the list and mentoring his staff on their contributions, etc... there would be a great deal of interest among the cocktailian community, and I have no doubt that it would be a top cocktail spot. Unfortunately, that seems unlikely.


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variable.  Gin Lane was just awful.  just awful.  very much a "take the money and run"...some of the house drinks he made for Dell'Anima are better than decent.  others aren't.

he's the grand-daddy of them all...and seen as such.  but people have definitely moved to a point of obsessiveness that he didn't.  but everyone reads his books.

the thing about "cocktail consulting" is that at most it means the original recipes given to the restaurant/bar were competent.  it doesn't say anything about the execution.

I agree with your last paragraph, but take issue with the "take the money and run" characterization. Acting as a consultant doesn't mean you have control over decisions that management makes, including how to keep standards high and train staff.

Every consulting gig is a "take the money and run" gig. That's the nature of the beast. That's what they are. It's no different for a mixologist than it is for a chef.


--

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variable.  Gin Lane was just awful.  just awful.  very much a "take the money and run"...some of the house drinks he made for Dell'Anima are better than decent.  others aren't.

he's the grand-daddy of them all...and seen as such.  but people have definitely moved to a point of obsessiveness that he didn't.  but everyone reads his books.

the thing about "cocktail consulting" is that at most it means the original recipes given to the restaurant/bar were competent.  it doesn't say anything about the execution.

I agree with your last paragraph, but take issue with the "take the money and run" characterization. Acting as a consultant doesn't mean you have control over decisions that management makes, including how to keep standards high and train staff.

true. I didn't mean for that to be pejorative. people have to make a living.

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Okay I get it now.

To expand a bit on Nathan's comments: Places like Bobo, Elettaria, etc. are places where you can go there on a certain night and avail yourself of a cocktailian heavy hitter (Naren at the former, Brian at the latter).

I'm pretty sure Brian no longer has a relationship with Elettaria.

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Okay I get it now.

To expand a bit on Nathan's comments: Places like Bobo, Elettaria, etc. are places where you can go there on a certain night and avail yourself of a cocktailian heavy hitter (Naren at the former, Brian at the latter).

I'm pretty sure Brian no longer has a relationship with Elettaria.

That's right.

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Right. These places tend by nature to be moving targets. Brian left Elettaria, and it immediately slips from second tier to third tier. If, like me, you haven't kept up with the comings-and-goings at Elettaria, you can end up going there after the slide.

This is one of the things that has generally kept me away from the second tier places. I simply can't be bothered to keep track of things such as whether Naren is going to be at Bobo on a certain night. There were any number of times I tried to go to Freeman's on one of Toby's nights only to discover that he had traded with someone else or was out of town or otherwise not there on his regular night. Eventually I stopped trying.


Edited by slkinsey (log)

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What I'd like to add to Nathan's taxonomy is to repeat a point I made above.

There are also a bunch of very pretentious nightclub/bars in New York that purport to be part of the Cocktail Movement but aren't. They're pretending; using the Cocktail Movement as a hook for their entirely different purposes.

The Gold Bar is the poster boy for this tendency. There are others I've mentioned above (some of them fall into Nathan's taxonomy as Charlotte Voisey-consulted places), and more as well.

I think an article such as FG is proposing could do readers a real service by pointing out that these places are complete bullshit, as far as Serious Cocktails are concerned. Go for the crowd and the scene if you want, but don't go thinking they're valid "cocktail destinations."


Edited by Sneakeater (log)

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Right.  These places tend by nature to be moving targets.  Brian left Elettaria, and it immediately slips from second tier to third tier.

Whereas -- to state the obvious -- if Pegu has a temporary fallow period because of dilution of talent, you know it's going to bounce back, because unlike a place like Ellataria it has a genuine commitment to excellence in cocktails.

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Right.  These places tend by nature to be moving targets.  Brian left Elettaria, and it immediately slips from second tier to third tier.

Whereas -- to state the obvious -- if Pegu has a temporary fallow period because of dilution of talent, you know it's going to bounce back, because unlike a place like Ellataria it has a genuine commitment to excellence in cocktails.

Indeed. And even if there is a momentary "fallow period" where you are unfamiliar with the new talent and they don't know what you like, or they are new enough to the bar that they're not comfortable (or allowed) to go deeply off-menu... at the very least you know that all of the house drinks are still going to be made at the highest level, and were created at the very highest level.


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And -- I know we're just repeating points now -- they were designed to function as works in themselves, not as adjuncts to a food menu concept that have to appeal to a non-cocktailian crowd.


Edited by Sneakeater (log)

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This discussion makes me wonder where we are now in terms of developing emerging talent. In the relative early days of the NYC cocktail revival, it seems like a small group of enthusiasts bonded together over a shared obsession. The industry was, and I guess still is, very fraternal. Five years ago, anyone even expressing an interest in old cocktail books, bitters and fresh juices probably would have (I'm theorizing here) easily found a home on either side of the bar. So Audrey would have been chatting with you as a customer for hours or a young bartender who showed curiosity in classic cocktails would have been swooped up or sought out to be behind the stick. There was just not many people into this at the time.

Now the cocktail scene has become more institutionalized and it has merged with foodie/restaurant culture. How many people attended Tales this year compared to two years ago? Don't know the numbers but it seems like this is blowing up nationally. This brings us to an interesting place and time wherein many restaurants or second tier cocktail bars create more avenues for cocktailian bartenders but at the same time doesn't quite quite guarantee those spaces are going to the most passionate or talented. Julie, Audrey, Sasha, Jim Meehan, Dave Kaplan & Phil Ward certainly hire bartenders who are entirely serious about the craft. However, that still leads to a very exclusive and minor membership in terms of developing new talent.

These second tier places are often staffed by hacks, honestly. Waistcoats and mustaches aside, I lot of these folks are not at all committed at anywhere near the level of the "Top 5". At least it's real hit or miss. I've been to places with Kold Draft and bitters on the bar, and have gotten a sazerac shaken on the rocks with an orange. I have even been told "well we really don't get too geeky, we just want to do a couple of things right and have a cool place for people to chill".

I wonder if, despite the growing popularity of cocktails, we're leaving a very exciting time and entering a pretty co-opted, mediocre one. At least in this market.


"Wives and such are constantly filling up any refrigerator they have a

claim on, even its ice compartment, with irrelevant rubbish like

food."" - Kingsley Amis

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I'm going to recount something that happened last night at Clover Club, just in case anyone reading this thread doesn't know how Serious Cocktail Bars work.

I was there with H. du Bois. We each had ordered our first two drinks from the menu. As we were drinking each drink, the bartender -- I can't remember his name; he's excellent but not, I think, a city-wide "name" (yet) -- lightly asked us how and why we liked it.

For my third drink, I asked the bartender to make whatever he thought I'd like using a base liquor I noticed they had that I was eager to try (Hayman's Old Tom Gin). Meanwhile, H. had gone to the lady's room. (I'm not sure she's going to appreciate my going into this much detail.) When she returned, she asked the bartender for some drink she'd seen on the menu. He said that he'd already made her something else he was certain she'd like more. And at least according to H., it was perfect.

That's the value of a Serious Cocktail Bar. And that's why there's all this mania about going off-menu. It's like an omakase at a first-class sushi bar, where the chef makes the meal up as he goes along, based on your reactions to each dish.


Edited by Sneakeater (log)

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