Until quite recently, the idea of a thriving bar scene returning to New York seemed highly improbable.
“I want to walk into a socially distanced, mostly empty bar for a drink,” said no one, ever. Now it’s not only probable – it’s here.
A line snakes down the block to get into places like Pebble Bar, the cozy new Rock Center spot with shellfish platters, Ginny Fallon G&Ts, and a secret entrance for the Saturday Night Live crew.
Even the classics are packed: one of the hottest boîtes in town is Bemelmans, the Upper East Side hangout that’s pushing 70.
These days, it’s not enough to just get an expertly made cocktail – it’s about getting one that feels like a big deal. Perhaps it’s accompanied by a panoramic view of the city, or a piano player who knows how to set a scene. Maybe the spot evokes a fabulous era. (The ’40s! Or, why not – the ’90s!)
“People seem to be looking for something that feels transportive and goes beyond a standard restaurant experience,” says Jon Neidich, chief executive of Golden Age Hospitality, whose roster of primo cocktail hotspots include the Happiest Hour and buzzy new supper club The Nines.
The city’s drinking establishments have been bustling in a way that shows New York is getting back on its feet.
The pre-pandemic bar sector was responsible for US$2 billion in economic output according to the most recent Economic Impact Study of NYC Nightlife.
“There is a pent-up demand to be with people again, to get back to our lives,” says Ian Schrager, owner of Bar Chrystie in the Public Hotel, who also watched lines form at his hallowed club Studio 54. “Perhaps this will be a reprise to what happened at the end of the pandemic of 1918 with the Roaring Twenties.”
Here’s where to go now when you’re looking for a night that makes drinking seem like an event, one of those special, singular New York moments.
The whiff of nostalgia is strong at Temple Bar, one of the city’s more fabulous downtown hangouts in the ’90s. The current drinks list, from Sam Ross and Michael McIlroy, evokes those heady times: there’s a dedicated section of martinis, with the option of a US$19 caviar “bump.”
Standouts include the Olive Oil Martini, with oil-washed vermouth and olives (naturally), as well as the Lifetime Ban, which features navy strength gin. There’s also a mean take on the Vesper – gin and vodka with a lemon twist.
But to make it an event, get the Blue Negroni, despite the fact that the space is so dark you might not be able to admire the color.
The wine list ranges from glasses of orange wine (COS Rami Sicilian) to magnums of Billecart Salmon Brut Cuvee. Grilled cheese slathered with honey and filet mignon steak cubes are available for sustenance.
Cabin Bar at Quality Meats
On a Midtown sidewalk, Quality Meats owner Michael Stillman and bartender Bryan Schneider turned what was once an outdoor dining cabin into a fully stocked bar for two that has its own on-call bartender – and a two month wait for reservations.
Specialty drinks include a pair of bourbon hot toddies (US$45), made with a retrofitted syphon coffee machine, and barrel-aged tequila sangritas (US$25).
The walls are lined with a collection of “Dusties” of which you can get two-finger pours of Johnnie Walker Oldest (US$60) and the ’70s Suntory Yamazaki “Rare and Very Old” (US$55). In addition to the full Quality Meats menu, dedicated Cabin nibbles include black truffle-topped lobster toast.
Once upon a time, the Pebble Bar space was a speakeasy called Hurley’s where David Letterman filmed shows and the Saturday Night Live crew hung out.
Now it’s a flirty, three-story lounge from the team behind Ray’s downtown, with corner tables adorned with brass lamps and a line down the Rock Center block.
Shellfish dominates the small menu – shrimp cocktail and a very good crab salad spiked with lemon and Old Bay. Drinks, which start at US$20, likewise play to crowd favorites.
The Martini 1-H refers to the unofficial name of the space in years past; the bourbon-based Hurley’s Old-Fashioned has a hint of citrus oil.
Upstairs, the semi-private lounge is equipped with custom-built Devon Turnbull speakers and named Johnny’s, an ode to former patron Johnny Carson.
The Lower East Side’s Public hotel is home to a couple of bars, including the high-energy, plant-filled Cantina & Pisco Bar on the ground floor. Upstairs, at Bar Chyrstie, crystal chandeliers dominate the sultry club.
Order a spicy Margarita del Mundo, spiked with miso honey and jalapeño, or the Black Tie Optional, a combo of tequila, sherry, and smoked chocolate that’s prepared tableside for US$29 per person. There’s also lots of Champagne, but no food.
Owner Schrager has installed a DJ on some nights, but he’s also just launched live performances that might or might not evoke his Studio 54 days – Chic’s Nile Rodgers played earlier this week.
The swanky lounge in the new Pendry hotel has a golden glow: all visible surfaces are covered in Champagne-colored silk and velvet and moon gold paint.
The backlit bar serves a curated list of drinks that run from classic margaritas and Old-Fashioneds to more unconventional options like the best-selling Haku Sour, a mix of Japanese vodka, mango honey, and bee pollen.
Booze by the glass includes Macallan 25 that goes for US$150 an ounce; bartenders also pour a lot Clase Azul reposado tequila. Whipped ricotta with dried honey apricots are the popular snack, as are fresh-baked cookies—pair them with a glass of (golden) Chateau d’Yquem.
To get to the pocket-sized Overstory in 70 Pine, an Art Deco masterpiece that was once the tallest building in downtown New York, guests take an elevator up to the 63 floor, then walk up a flight of stairs, and then typically gasp at the view.
The room has a short list of US$24 cocktails from bartender extraordinaire Harrison Ginsberg.
The Easy Money is a tall glass of coconut-infused vodka with yuzu soda and a makrut lime leaf tincture; the Terroir Old-Fashioned is made with palo santo-infused reposado tequila and garnished with a chunk of honeycomb. Non-alcoholic drinks on offer include the ginger- and banana-based Sim Simma.
Small bowls of nuts and olives are the only food you’ll get, however. In good weather, the seats to grab are outside on the terrace, where there is a 360-degree panoramic view of the city down below.
Sunken Harbor Club
Upstairs from the well-appointed chophouse, Gage & Tollner, is the platonic ideal of a tiki bar.
The brainchild of St. John Frizell, a partner in the restaurant and owner of the beloved Fort Defiance in Red Hook, it does a stellar job of bringing the beach to downtown Brooklyn.
Amidst anchor and rope and sea décor, drinks range from the Rum Barrel (a blend of the booze with five types of citrus served in a tankard) to the Tijuana Taxi (a white negroni made with mezcal and banana).
There’s also a section of non-alcoholic drinks cheekily marked as “On Dry Land.” Sunken Harbor’s snacks are a change from standard fare with options like pork and chive dumplings, glazed spare ribs, and hearty pho.
On most nights, you’ll know you’ve arrived at Bemelmans when you see the line outside the the storied Upper East Side watering hole in the Carlyle Hotel.
The piano bar is named for Ludwig Bemelmans, who decorated the walls with whimsical scenes of Central Park in the style of his Madeline children’s books.
The comfort vibe is strong here: the hidden haven has become a powerful draw for pandemic-weary crowds looking to down treats like pigs in a blanket and martinis (US$21–$35).
A popular order is Elaine’s Smokey Martini, a punchy mix of Lagavulin whisky, gin, and vermouth much like Ms. Stritch herself.
Another is – no, not an espresso martini, although like everywhere else they’re in demand – Bobby’s Manhattan. Be warned, there’s a one-rule dress code: no active sportwear.
Though The Nines is technically a supper club - inspired by glamorous hotel lobby boîtes in London and Paris – this NoHo spot’s curved marble bar has also become a destination.
The seductive vibe of the already low-lit, red-hued room is especially rich when there’s an expert keying jazz and Chaka Khan covers on the baby grand in the back. Joining the classics, such as Negronis and Cosmopolitans, are concoctions like the Nines which combines tequila, mezcal, and passion fruit.
The dinner menu is served at the bar; so are smaller plates: the Kaspian potato is stuffed with crème fraiche and caviar; the No. 9 Club Sandwich comes with kewpie mayo.
Cocktails in the sky – 60 stories up – feature at Manhatta, the Financial District watering hole from Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group.
The floor-through space opened in 2018, but it has refocused its bar cred during the pandemic. (The restaurant will reopen later this year.)
The menu features a map of neighborhood riffs on New York cocktails: The Manhatta(n), mixed here with walnut and coffee bitters; the Brooklyn, based on a cherry blossom-infused rye; and Astoria, which blends vermouths and gins with pickled honeydew. Everything pretzels with mustard cream cheese, as well as fried chicken with chile aioli, are the stars of the bar menu.
Ice cubes are front and center at Philomena’s, a chill spot in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. Kyle Dailey, a veteran of the Tao Group and Quality Branded, curated the drinks list and masterminds the cubes.
They include the cucumber, lime, and tajin cube in the mezcal-infused Felix; a honey-rhubarb ice anchoring the whiskey-based Alice; and the namesake Philomena, which wows with an eye-catching ball of pink watermelon rosé ice slowly melting into a coupe of Prosecco.
The snacks list is short and simple – think ottarga onion dip – and the beer list is dominated by New York brews like Bushwick Pilsner.
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