When asked, “What’s the New York City cocktail scene like these days?” people probably expect me to say something about all the new bars that have opened, or what New Yorkers are currently drinking. However, my first instinct is to say that the city’s most important trend is survival.
When immigrants first moved to New York and established the first businesses, they were living on top of one another in tenements. Well, now the ghosts of this city—this is one big ghost town, after all—live on top of the bones of what came before. Precious few addresses are kept intact to serve their original purpose. That’s why the struggle to keep stools filled in any sort of bar, cocktail-focused or otherwise, is harder now than ever.
We all know it when we walk into a bad bar. But even the bars we adore, places that seem to do everything right, are closing. As was the case of the beloved and recently-closed Flatiron Lounge, long-term leases expire and landlords demand outrageous rent increases (then, of course, the space stays empty for years, instead of providing a needed service, but that’s a whole other rant).
Other times, next-generation building owners see more potential in commercial ventures than mom and pop businesses. With so many addresses being leveled and redesigned as banks, corporate chain stores, urgent care facilities or worse—more realty offices—it seems building owners are no longer interested in serving the people who live in their communities.
New Bars From Old Friends
In recent years, some new bars—or rather, new old bars—have risen from the real estate ashes. Maybe they can’t control a greedy real estate mogul, but they can do their best to serve a space while they have it.
Holiday Cocktail Lounge on St. Mark’s Place in the East Village resurrected what had been a beloved neighborhood dive into a place that actually lives up to its middle name while retaining most of its local appeal.
With Paris Duranté again at the helm, the Campbell reopened inside Grand Central Terminal after changing ownership and closing for an update in 2016.
Dante made over one of my favorite West Village Italian cafe spaces, which had been in operation for 100 years. The new owners, led by Naren Young, created a gathering space for Negronis, Martinis and all manner of aperitivos and digestivos, that feels like Italy by way of Macdougal St.
Toby Cecchini resuscitated Long Island Restaurant into Long Island Bar so deftly and with so much life that no one would guess the space had been shuttered in a real estate coma for nearly a decade (he also just opened the terrific Rockwell Place in Fort Greene).
The Rum House took over an old Times Square watering hole and polished it back to a sort of former glory—a joint Nick and Nora Charles would have taken their chums to for Rum Old-Fashioneds and piano jazz between solving crimes.
Industry Vets Spread Their Wings
The early 2000s cocktail alumni continue to be worth watching—and visiting behind the stick. After many years at Pegu Club, Kenta Goto opened Bar Goto to well-deserved awards and accolades (while also serving the best bar chicken wings in the whole city. Incidentally, their longtime bartender Chris Reed could really use your help). Over on the west side, Masa Urushido from Saxon & Parole co-founded Katana Kitten with the Cocktail Kingdom team for another fine take on the Tokyo-meets-Gotham experience.
While many of the Death & Co. founding team have set their sights out of town, you can still experience the influence at Pouring Ribbons (Joaquín Simó), Cocina Madre (Phil Ward), and Banzarbar (Eryn Reece). There’s a Milk & Honey family tree (most notably Middle Branch, Dutch Kills, Seaborne and, of course, Attaboy). Leyenda, helmed by Ivy Mix, became the Latin-themed sister bar to Julie Reiner’s across-the-street Clover Club. The Beagle is gone, but the aesthetic survives at the Up & Up and Stay Gold. Miss the science-y cocktails at Booker & Dax? Check out what Dave Arnold, Don Lee, and the team at Existing Conditions are lighting up on West 8th St. A nearly unheard of occurrence just happened with Mace, which moved into a larger space on 12th St. The list happily goes on and on.
People used to say if we can order a good Daiquiri at a restaurant, then we’ve achieved prime cocktail. Well, we’re there! Cocktails are no longer an afterthought, but part of the package, as evidenced at Frenchette, Manhatta, Simon and the Whale, Cherry Point, Llama Inn, Clocktower, Bar Moga, Aska, The Spaniard, Grand Army, Porchlight, Valerie, Fort Defiance, Maison Premiere, Belly, Union Square Cafe 2.0, LaRina Pastificio e Vino, and the recently opened Gran Tivoli with Peppi’s Cellar beneath to name a few. Even old-school joints like theater district mainstay Chez Josephine got with the program and updated their drink list.
Tiki and all-weather tropical is still on the rise at the Polynesian, Broken Shaker, Diamond Reef, and Blacktail. New Yorkers will always appreciate an excuse to put on gladrags and have a night on the town at upscale spots like the Bar at Daniel and the Pool or Ophelia. Or we can visit a swanky hotel bar that doesn’t exclusively serve expensive, unctuous drinks that end in “tini” (think Dear Irving on Hudson, Bar Pleiades, Bar Fiori, Office, The Ides, The Roof at Park South, and Diego). Once again, we can even take in a retro nightclubby vibe while sipping from a diverse spirit menu—for that, try Flatiron Room or Fine & Rare.
Long Live the Neighborhood Bar
What is most heartening is that the humble neighborhood bar is still a thing. To live in the City That Never Sleeps requires extra fuel, and what is most needed at the end of the day is a simple place to call home. A real New Yorker chooses locals near their apartment, but also a few around town that are worth dealing with MTA machinations to drink in. I live in Cobble Hill near enough great bars to fill a lake, but every once in a while I enjoy a good excuse to visit Grand Republic Cocktail Club in Greenpoint; Diamond Dogs or Sweet Afton in Astoria; Boilermaker, Holiday, Big Bar (and I look forward to checking out Mister Paradise) in the East Village; or just walk the several extra blocks to Travel Bar at the edge of Carroll Gardens.
This year, one of my resolutions is to spend more time exploring Williamsburg to visit The Starlight and Bushwick Country Club. Though perhaps a bit more upscale than a typical tavern, I also consider Amor y Amargo and Dead Rabbit locals because the hospitality and familiarity always feels so homey.
We’re still early into 2019, and much can happen. I’m excited for ventures such as Claire Sprouse’s Hunky Dory in Crown Heights, which is poised to define a city-wide sustainability and waste-conscious movement. It will also hopefully usher more day-to-night experiences into our culture, with day and evening menus available all week long.
Don’t Leave Friends Behind
However, it’s still heartbreaking to lose a familiar spot, which is happening at an alarming rate. How many of the places I list here will survive the year? For every new and exciting spot, there is another opening that seems targeted to everyone except New Yorkers. With so many choices, never take that Keens Manhattan or Bemelmans Martini for granted.
This city isn’t short of ghosts waiting for your bar stool.