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Kent Wang

New York Serious Cocktail Bars

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[Moderator's Note - This topic has been split off from the (Re) Birth of Vodka - Is It Possible? topic, because most of these posts have nothing to do with the rebirth of vodka article that was the subject of that topic.]

For a place as busy as D&Co, why don't they just remove their vodkas altogether and stop serving dumb drinks to people that ask? It seems like they can afford to turn away business.


Edited by weinoo (log)

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In fact, they DO turn away business. Plenty of business.

I get turned away at least 4 or 5 times for every time I get in.

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In fact, they DO turn away business.  Plenty of business.

I get turned away at least 4 or 5 times for every time I get in.

There should be an express line for rye drinkers.

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Yep. It's definitely true that customers at a bar can be jerks. It's also true that a large proportion of bar customers at most any bar are really there for other reasons besides a keen interest in mixology. I've always found it ironic that a certain species of customer will want to be in bars with reputations for top quality mixology, and then don't avail themselves of that resource. Can any one bar really "mix" a better Vodka Soda than another bar? For these people, it's fundamentally about the "scene" and being associated with the "cool" they perceive to exist connected with these bars.

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OK, but then how come when I asserted several months ago that Serious Cocktail Bars essentially cater to a niche market but are being overrun with inappropriate patrons who are just going because of the publicity these bars have been getting, but who not only don't appreciate but in many cases actively dislike what the bars are offering, you strongly disagreed with me?

ETA -- I mean, not to be argumentative or anything.


Edited by Sneakeater (log)

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I gather you're referring to this thread?

I'm not sure that this point was made by you or refuted by me in this thread quite the way you put it here. Regardless, I'm not sure what that would have to do with this conversation, context being everything.

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And the reason I keep harping on it, BTW, is because I think it's important.

And this thread shows why.

People don't show up at Jean Georges and expect to get served immediately, get cranky when they don't get served immediately, and start whining because the food is too exotic.

People show up at the Serious Cocktail Bars and act that way all the time. And it's to the detriment of my experience, as someone whom these bars are aimed at (although they'd no doubt prefer it if I were younger, richer, and better looking). First, because all these people prevent me from even getting in. And second, when I occassionally do get in, they're braying and carrying on as if they're in normal bars where you go only to get drunk, rather than places where you go to appreciate what you're drinking. (Phil's point that he wouldn't act the same in the Cherry Tavern as he would in Mayahuel is very telling.)

The problem is that Serious Cocktail Bars seem too much like "normal" bars, and there's not enough public explanation of what makes them different. As Sam once commented, Sasha's famous "rules" actually were the best attempt to convey the difference to the public. But I think the Serious Cocktail Bars have got to do something.

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If you want a Serious Cocktail Bar to be like a restaurant, then make it like a restaurant: Don't play any music. Everyone sits at a table or has a comfortable seat at the bar. Admit only a limited number of people. Customers are presented with a menu and expected to order from it. Cocktails should be prepared largely out of sight in another room and delivered to the customers. Or, if you want the sushi bar experience, then make it so that only the cogniscenti aren't too intimidated to order "omakase" from the bartender. Charge extra-high prices. And book seats by reservation. There is a place like this, of course: Milk & Honey. And you know what? It's overrun with people who are there for the scene.

Meanwhile, are you honestly suggesting that it's next-to-impossible to score a reservation at Babbo because tons of people who really know and appreciate not only Italian cusine, but Mario Batali's special brand of "Manhattan as a region of Italy" asethetic? Hardly. 80% of them at least are there because they've seen Mario on TV and they like spaghetti and they perceive Babbo as being a cool place. The same thing goes 1000 times more for Momofuku.

What this means is that the very best a cocktail bar or restaurant can hope for is that some minority of the customers really "get it." That's the reality.


Edited by slkinsey (log)

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The difference, though, is that the people who go to Babbo because it's a hot restaurant or they've seen Mario on TV have some idea what they're getting. They're not disrespectful of the entire premise of the restaurant. That seems to me to be different from the problems Serious Cocktail Bars face. Maybe there's nothing that can be done about it.

But I do think that for every time I've seen someone as in Daisy's stories enraptured by their first really good cocktail, I've seen maybe five people (including one of the women I took to Pegu last week) who've hated the way their cocktail tasted, were frustrated that they couldn't get the kind of cocktails they were used to, thought it was stupid that other people were paying attention to what they were drinking, and didn't understood why it took so long for their orders to be filled.

And yet they keep coming, always more of them. They're like the Vietnamese.


Edited by Sneakeater (log)

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a couple thoughts:

1. perhaps part of the problem is that in NYC the best cocktails are served at bars not restaurants. with a couple exceptions, virtually all good cocktails outside of NY (in the U.S. anyway) are served in restaurants. the SCB is primarily a NY phenomenon. at one level that's good, the SCBs are able to be better (generally speaking) than other establishments due to cocktails being their sole focus...but they also run into the problem that their customers often look at them as bars. the expectations of a restaurant are simply different.

2. I understand where Sneakeater is coming from. I really do. With that said, new cocktail geeks have to come from somewhere. I first got into serious cocktails in late 2003/early 2004. I was already a gin drinker (I had somewhere gotten the idea that this was the retro thing to do) and heard about the atmosphere and theatrics of Milk & Honey. so I went. the light came on. then I started going up to the Bemelman's Bar, etc. but if it wasn't for the cachet of M&H I might never have been introduced to serious cocktails until quite a bit later. I hardly think I was the only one.

3. which leads back to the original subject of this thread. I was a gin drinker. in my experience, the successful prosyletizing I've done for serious cocktails has been mostly with people who were already gin or whiskey drinkers (usually bourbon or scotch). Those are the people who are already predisposed to liking alcoholic beverages that actually taste like something. vodka drinkers usually have a much larger road to cross.

4. you know what? there are plenty of people who will respect a well-made drink when they're at an SCB but will turn around and happily drink a vodka tonic later the same evening. they're the same people who will happily eat at Ssam Bar one night and Asia de Cuba the next...and enjoy them both equally. and there's probably more of them then there are of us.

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The difference, though, is that the people who go to Babbo because it's a hot restaurant or they've seen Mario on TV have some idea what they're getting.  They're not disrespectful of the entire premise of the restaurant.

I fundamentally disagree with this. They may not be disrespectful in the way you think people are disrespectful in SCBs, but the idea that average person from Peoria who saw Mario on FoodTV and got a reservation at Babbo knows what he's getting is ridiculous. Internet fora less foodie-oriented than this (and to a certain extent this one) abound with reports from people who were underwhelmed with the food at Babbo. Think back to those early episodes of The Sopranos (you know, the ones before it turned into a Mafia Soap Opera) when Tony and the boys went to Italy... in one scene they're served an amazing Italian meal that includes what looks like spaghetti al nero di seppia, and Paulie Walnuts says something like, "what is this crap? Can I just get some macaroni and gravy?"

But, really, the comparison between a restaurant and a bar is not an apt one. For better or worse, people act and think differently about bars than they do restaurants. You can complain about it, but it's not going to change.

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Seems like Mayahuel is a good start at a bar that Sneakeater (and I) would like. No vodka. I don't know if they have beer and wine but I wouldn't mind cutting that out too. And in Phil's story about the girl that wanted the vodka tonic the standard bar policy for asking for rube drinks can be to just say "no, we don't go off menu", which would be a bit of a white lie if they wanted to go off menu for Serious Cocktails, but I think that's fine.

Also, no gimmicks like secret phone numbers (M&H) or secret entrances (PDT). I'm not knocking those bars for having them but there's no question that those "gimmicks" attract quite a few rubes.

I think a bar that implemented all the above policies would cut out a lot of the rubes. That D&C turns away a ton of business shows that it would not be entirely impractical for a bar like this to exist. Now, somebody just needs to make it happen...

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Well, how about the current M&H format? As far as I can tell, since Sasha started the membership program, it's been substantially easier to get seats there, and I've had fairly little trouble getting a reservation on relatively short notice. What about if it completely finished the transition to becoming a private club? Is this helpful? Certainly it's a lot easier for me to take friends there now (much easier than either PDT or D&Co), but unless you want to give an exam to prospective patrons, there are limited other ways to really restrict who shows up. Moreover, at a guess, I'd think that M&H is substantially less profitable than PDT or D&Co – at some level, these bars are businesses, too.

The other thing is, there just aren't that many cocktail geeks... we wouldn't have the "SCB" scene in New York that we do if cocktail geekery weren't getting in some sense subsidized by everyone else. Net-net, I think that makes it a benefit.

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The dirty secret is that there just aren't enough "serious cocktailians" who don't have any vodka-drinking friends (or aren't willing to go through Sneakeater's machinations to discourage such friends from ordering the likes of a Lychee Martini) to sustain profitability at what, by this time, is more than ten reasonably serious cocktail bars*. That's equals somewhere in the neighborhood of 600 spots to fill across the City every night, and when you figure that each one of those spots is likely to "turn" at least three times a night, it's really 1,800 spots. Multiply that by seven days and you have 12,600 spots combined that these bars need to fill every week in order to stay open -- and most of them would like to do more business than that. This is the economic reality. For sure there aren't enough "true cocktailians" (however one may choose to define this) in the City of New York to even begin to make a dent in this. Does anyone suppose that there are enough cocktail-interested people with no Vodka Soda-drinking friends or dates to fill all these spots? I very much doubt it.

The very strong vibe I get from you, Sneakeater, is that you're somehow resentful of the fact that these rubes, who don't "get" cocktail culture as much as you do, are taking up seats you would like to occupy and thereby making it more difficult for you to get into your favorite bars. The reality is, unfortunately, that there simply aren't enough people like you around for these bars to stay in business (not that it would help your situation if there were). I assume you would like for your favorite bars to make money so they can stay open? Of course, you could always confine most of your cocktailing to a place like Milk & Honey, if you're willing to pay the higher prices, put up with the hassle of needing to make a reservation, and okay with having to go Chinatown in the middle of the night to get a drink. By the way... I don't know if anyone's noticed, but Sasha isn't exactly lighting Cuban cigars with hundred dollar bills.

Meanwhile, there is a way to have a cocktail bar that is not overrun with non-cocktailians: Locate in a part of the city that makes it a destination and won't automatically attract the very crowd you disdain by virtue of its location. As great as it may be to have three Serious Cocktail Bars located in the East Village in the middle of the various Momofukus, etc... it is also the middle of Hipster Douchebag Central, and anyone who opens a bar in the middle of Hipster Douchebag Central shouldn't be too surprised when, lo and behold, a bunch of hipster douchebags present themselves at the bar looking for cans of Porkslap for themselves and Vodka Sodas for their dates. Thinking back to ye olden days, I can't remember ever seeing a hipster douchebag at Bemmelmans Bar in the Carlyle Hotel. But that's because, as far as medical science has been able to determine, hipster douchebags begin to wither and die whenever they journey above 14th Street. Similarly, while Dutch Kills in Long Island City does plan to be both a neighborhood bar offering beer and wine, it should also usually be relatively easy to get a seat there for a quality cocktail. On the other hand, locating away from the usual haunts of the unwashed masses can have its economic negatives. Pegu Club, for example, would be turning away people at the door 7 nights a week if they were located on St. Marks and 1st instead of Houston and West Broadway.

Getting back to vodka and not offering it at all in some bars... I think probably the best way to handle something like this is to advertise it. Make an ironic sign somewhere that says, "No vodka. No kidding." or something like that. And, if you have menus, put a little preface at the beginning of the menu about the philosophy of the bar, what kind of drinks you serve, and why you don't have vodka or serve doubles. If someone gives you crap about it, (i) they can't say that they weren't warned by the sign right there on the back bar, and (ii) instead of wasting your time, you can simply hand them a menu, tell them to give it a look, and that you'll be right back with them -- if they decide this is not the bar for them, they'll leave and you haven't wasted any of your time.

* Figure: Apothéke, B Flat, Brandy Library, Clover Club, Death & Co., Dutch Kills, Employees Only, Flatiron Lounge, Little Branch, Mayahuel, Milk & Honey, PDT, Pegu Club, Tailor.

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Of course, you could always confine most of your cocktailing to a place like Milk & Honey, if you're willing to pay the higher prices, put up with the hassle of needing to make a reservation, and okay with having to go Chinatown in the middle of the night to get a drink.

Actually (not that anyone cares), that's what I do.

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I care, Sneaky. I care. :smile:

The reality, I think, is that places like M&H are always going to be niche places with limited clientele that charge much higher prices and actually aren't terribly profitable. But, on the other hand, you get a civilized setting and you get to rub elbows with a much greater proportion of like-minded drinkers. I note, however, that no one, not even Sasha, has sought to replicate that model in NYC.

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here's my prediction (if it isn't happening already):

the same way some people have started "supper clubs" of private, restaurant-like spaces in people's homes...we will soon have "cocktail clubs". that solves all your problems. you can control the list, meet interesting like-minded people, not have to worry about someone ordering vodka, etc etc. No one expects anything except what they are served at these clubs

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I care, Sneaky.  I care.  :smile:

The reality, I think, is that places like M&H are always going to be niche places with limited clientele that charge much higher prices and actually aren't terribly profitable.  But, on the other hand, you get a civilized setting and you get to rub elbows with a much greater proportion of like-minded drinkers.  I note, however, that no one, not even Sasha, has sought to replicate that model in NYC.

Why do you insist that M&H has "much higher prices"? It's a different cost structure, but I would argue that 325/yr + 9/drink is cheaper on an annual basis than the 13/drink the EV places charge (and even better once you consider that the 9 is after tax, while at least at PDT the 13 is before tax, even accounting for the expectation of higher tipping at M&H).

And White Star comes in even cheaper at 7/drink before 9PM (and only 10 or 12 afterward) and is really quite easy to get a spot at on off nights. You'd have a hard time arguing that they serve drinks at any lower of a level, especially on nights that Sasha tends bar there.

here's my prediction (if it isn't happening already):

the same way some people have started "supper clubs" of private, restaurant-like spaces in people's homes...we will soon have "cocktail clubs".  that solves all your problems.  you can control the list, meet interesting like-minded people, not have to worry about someone ordering vodka, etc etc.  No one expects anything except what they are served at these clubs

That's essentially what's happening at M&H, except the motivation seems more to be to keep the noise level down than to really control the drink orders.
Edited by taion (log)

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People have been getting together for cocktails in their homes since Prohibition. That's nothing new. And, for a long time, if you wanted a quality cocktail, the only place you could go was someone's home.

But now, I don't see this being a major player. Compared to most anyone, and even most cocktail aficionados, I have a ridiculously well-stocked liquor cabinet. But even what I have doesn't begin to scratch the surface of what even a moderately well-stocked cocktail bar would have. That means that there are things I can get at Pegu Club of Mayahuel or wherever that I simply can't get at home. And, of course, unlike, say, Brian Miller or Giuseppe Gonzalez, home cocktailians aren't spending hour upon hour each week thinking about mixology and developing/tewaking cocktail recipes.

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Why do you insist that M&H has "much higher prices"? It's a different cost structure, but I would argue that 325/yr + 9/drink is cheaper on an annual basis than the 13/drink the EV places charge (and even better once you consider that the 9 is after tax, while at least at PDT the 13 is before tax, even accounting for the expectation of higher tipping at M&H).

The non-member price at M&H, the last I heard, was still the same fifteen bucks per drink they were charging in the old model. To my mind, twelve bucks a cocktail at Pegu versus fifteen bucks (25% more) at M&H equals "much higher prices."

But let's take a look at the membership model: Members pay six bucks less than the non-member price for cocktails. If a yearly membership is 325 bucks, that means that you have to buy approximately 54 drinks at M&H on a yearly basis to reach the break-even point versus the non-member prices at M&H. If we compare the membership fee and membership prices to Pegu Club's $ 12 cocktails, it would take 108 drinks to reach the break-even point. Now... I suppose if you go to Milk & Honey a lot (let's say, twice a month to the tune of 5 drinks per visit) you would eventually have a savings over their non-member prices, or if you go to Milk & Honey a whole lot (twice a month to the tune of 10 drinks per visit, or 4 times a month to the tune of 5 drinks per visit) you would eventually have a savings versus Pegu Club. But, of course, that doesn't leave a whole lot of time and money for going anywhere else.

So... this is what I mean when I say that the drinks at Milk & Honey are significantly more expensive than the drinks at other cocktail bars. It's not a criticism, really, because you do get something for the extra money. But it is a fact.


Edited by slkinsey (log)

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Why do you insist that M&H has "much higher prices"? It's a different cost structure, but I would argue that 325/yr + 9/drink is cheaper on an annual basis than the 13/drink the EV places charge (and even better once you consider that the 9 is after tax, while at least at PDT the 13 is before tax, even accounting for the expectation of higher tipping at M&H).

The non-member price at M&H, the last I heard, was still the same fifteen bucks per drink they were charging in the old model. To my mind, twelve bucks a cocktail at Pegu versus fifteen bucks (25% more) at M&H equals "much higher prices."

But let's take a look at the membership model: Members pay six bucks less than the non-member price for cocktails. If a yearly membership is 325 bucks, that means that you have to buy approximately 54 drinks at M&H on a yearly basis to reach the break-even point versus the non-member prices at M&H. If we compare the membership fee and membership prices to Pegu Club's $ 12 cocktails, it would take 108 drinks to reach the break-even point. Now... I suppose if you go to Milk & Honey a lot (let's say, twice a month to the tune of 5 drinks per visit) you would eventually have a savings over their non-member prices, or if you go to Milk & Honey a whole lot (twice a month to the tune of 10 drinks per visit, or 4 times a month to the tune of 5 drinks per visit) you would eventually have a savings versus Pegu Club. But, of course, that doesn't leave a whole lot of time and money for going anywhere else.

So... this is what I mean when I say that the drinks at Milk & Honey are significantly more expensive than the drinks at other cocktail bars.

These aren't entirely comparable, though; at least as far as I recall, the prices at Pegu were exclusive of tax, so the actual price is somewhat higher. Moreover, the member discount at M&H applies to all guests as well... I guess it's not possible to completely internalize all the savings here, but I don't think the difference is as stark as you are making it sound, and you are paying something for M&H being substantially less crowded and quieter (although I guess then there's some discount for their having cheaper rent, presumably). And, certainly, compared to PDT, 15 vs 13+tax is a much smaller difference, and 9 vs 13+tax a much smaller one.

I should stop being off-topic, though, especially because I don't have any substantive disagreement with you, although I re(pre)sent your remark about EV dwellers, being a resident of the EV myself. :hmmm: But, to my view, the difference to me between going to PDT and going to M&H is a matter of possibly paying a small premium and going a little bit out of my way. But I don't think this premium (if it does work out to be positive in the end) is that big a factor, and I think the availability of this trade-off makes the vodka-guzzling masses at PDT less of a concern than they would otherwise be, though I guess I am more biased toward Sasha's style of drinks... but this is circular, because I end up going to M&H more, since it's cheaper and easier to get in to (for me, from here, because I've already plunked down my 325).


Edited by taion (log)

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Of course, you could always confine most of your cocktailing to a place like Milk & Honey, if you're willing to pay the higher prices, put up with the hassle of needing to make a reservation, and okay with having to go Chinatown in the middle of the night to get a drink.

Just to elaborate, how is any of what you describe more of a burden than going to a bar in the East Village (where I don't live), getting told there's an hour wait, leaving, going to another bar in the East Village (where I still don't live), getting told there's an hour wait, leaving, going to a third bar in the East Village (haven't moved there yet), getting told there's an hour wait, and then either going over to the northern edge of Soho, where I know I'll be able to get in, or going home (which is what I usually do at that point)?

I understand and even sympathetize with your slightly mocking my irritation at my inability to get into the East Village places, but I really don't appreciate either schlepping to the East Village by myself only to find out I can't stop anywhere for a drink or (even worse) making a date to meet someone in the East Village and then having to wander around like vagabonds looking for a place with room for us. After-work cocktails are supposed to be relaxing, not a replay of the most annoying aspects of your workday. (I understand from Nathan that Young People don't mind wandering around so much, but we Grownups find it intolerable.)


Edited by Sneakeater (log)

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These aren't entirely comparable, though; at least as far as I recall, the prices at Pegu were exclusive of tax, so the actual price is somewhat higher.

You're mistaken about that. The list price of the cocktails at Pegu, and indeed at every cocktail bar of which I am aware, is inclusive of tax.

Moreover, the member discount at M&H applies to all guests as well... I guess it's not possible to completely internalize all the savings here, but I don't think the difference is as stark as you are making it sound, and you are paying something for M&H being substantially less crowded and quieter

That's exactly what I am saying. You are paying a substantial premium (this is simply true, no matter how you try to spin it), you are going through a certain amount of hassle with respect to location and reservations, you are limiting yourself to the smallest ingredients range and selection of any cocktail bar in the City, and you are limiting yourself largely, if not exclusively, to classic or "period style neo-classic" cocktails from one "school of mixology." These things are especially strong limitations because, if you want to eliminate the substantial premium and pay the same as you would pay in the other top cocktail bars, you and need to go there often enough so that you and your friends purchase at least 100 cocktails in a year. In exchange you are getting a quieter and more exclusive setting. Don't get me wrong... I love Milk & Honey. It's a great place. But it's not a place I'd want to go five times more than Dutch Kills, PDT, Pegu Club, Flatiron Lounge, Death & Co. and Mayahuel combined. But, really, to each his own. I can see how this would totally be worth it to some people. But I don't think we should pretend that it's not more expensive or that Milk & Honey doesn't come along with it's own baggage.

And, certainly, compared to PDT, 15 vs 13+tax is a much smaller difference, and 9 vs 13+tax a much smaller one.

It's been a little while since I've been to PDT, but historically the cocktails there have been twelve dollars. And I believe you must be mistaken about the price not being inclusive of tax. This might be true for the food, but I doubt it.

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Of course, you could always confine most of your cocktailing to a place like Milk & Honey, if you're willing to pay the higher prices, put up with the hassle of needing to make a reservation, and okay with having to go Chinatown in the middle of the night to get a drink.

Just to elaborate, how is any of what you describe more of a burden than going to a bar in the East Village (where I don't live), getting told there's an hour wait, leaving, going to another bar in the East Village (where I still don't live), getting told there's an hour wait, leaving, going to a third bar in the East Village (haven't moved there yet), getting told there's an hour wait, and then either going over to the northern edge of Soho, where I know I'll be able to get in, or going home (which is what I usually do at that point)?

I understand and even sympathetize with your slightly mocking my irritation at my inability to get into the East Village places, but I really don't appreciate either schlepping to the East Village by myself only to find out I can't stop anywhere for a drink or (even worse) making a date to meet someone in the East Village and then having to wander around like vagabonds looking for a place with room for us. Especially in the latter case, M&H seems like a no-brainer. (I understand from Nathan that Young People don't mind wandering around so much, but we Grownups find it intolerable.)

If you think the obvious solution is moving to the East Village, I'm telling you it's not - I live there. I never even try to go at peak times. It is annoying to know that someone who doesn't give a shit about cocktails is taking my seat and tipping poorly, but that's just the way it is. I've reached acceptance on this one.

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These aren't entirely comparable, though; at least as far as I recall, the prices at Pegu were exclusive of tax, so the actual price is somewhat higher.

You're mistaken about that. The list price of the cocktails at Pegu, and indeed at every cocktail bar of which I am aware, is inclusive of tax.

...

And, certainly, compared to PDT, 15 vs 13+tax is a much smaller difference, and 9 vs 13+tax a much smaller one.

It's been a little while since I've been to PDT, but historically the cocktails there have been twelve dollars. And I believe you must be mistaken about the price not being inclusive of tax. This might be true for the food, but I doubt it.

I don't know how it works in NY, but in Texas pricing alcohol at an on-premises place like that is the law. Alcoholic beverages are not subject to sales tax, but to a different alcohol tax that is 14% and is paid by the serving establishment. Again this only applies to a bar or restaraunt, not a retail establishment. Perhaps there is a similar arrangement in NY? Restaraunt and bar food is of course still subject to sales tax.

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