“New York gets god-awful cold in the winter but there’s a feeling of wacky comradeship somewhere in some streets.“– Jack Kerouac
New York City is crime-ridden, no fun, dead. Since the pandemic, doomsayers have hammered this narrative over and over again, jumping at any chance to pour dirt on the Big Apple’s grave. No doubt the city has serious, endemic problems (cough cough, rent prices) but I’m a direct observation guy, I want to observe and judge for myself. So, when good fortune granted me a night in Manhattan, I planned a cocktail sprint for the ages, the only rule being I had to stay upright. Google Maps in hand and Tums in my bag, I stepped bravely into the night, determined to maximize both experience and intake. Happily, when it was all said and done and I turned in for the night–in a bed, non-delirious–I was newly confident in the city’s prospects.
I started at the bottom. Lower Manhattan that is, inside The Dead Rabbit, a much-ballyhooed Water Street pub that blends well-worn Gaelic aesthetic with American functionality. Everything here is top notch and hits the bartops quick, including my fish n’ chips and superb Irish coffee martini. The scenery is traditional and beautiful, with faded unit patches on the wall, black and white photographs from the motherland, and jugs of Jameson resting peacefully in ice baths. I didn’t indulge this time (remember, discipline) but the Irish coffee here is best of class. The Rabbit’s vibe is lively even during the weekday lunch hour, a good omen for the rest of the day.
I trucked uptown and stopped into Milady’s, a Greenwich Village institution recently revived by cocktail legend Julie Reiner, host of the excellent Drink Masters on Netflix. The bar is clean and smooth with dark bar tops, backlit shelves, and modern seating. Drinks were clever and fun, lots of white rum and throwbacks with a twist. Cliques and gaggles of old friends laughed over drinking bouts gone by. I fell in love with the pulp novel wallpaper in the rest rooms. Reading the hilariously over-the-top titles (“Women Without Morals” was my favorite) is one of the best legal things to do in a bathroom. Milady’s is easy going and subtly luxe, perfect for whiling away the hours with friends or a date.
I trundled a few blocks north and struck out at the sublime Dante, which was already packed at 2pm. Next time. But NYC provides legions of superb alternatives including Mace, which was picked as the 9th best bar in North America and 93rd in the world. Mace is high art from the get-go, with daring, ultra-exotic cocktail ingredients that will puzzle and intrigue most visitors. The scene is Manhattan chic, so bring your A-game outfits (not a problem for me, I shop at Nordstrom Rack). I pride myself on always ordering the most adventurous items on any menu, but my bravery abandoned me and I passed on the “Ants” cocktail, which includes ants. I suppose I have some limits after all. I opted instead for “Dill”, confidently bullshitting that I knew what “coconut albumine” was. It was good, vegetal and full-bodied. Took about 30 minutes to drink with the appropriate respect.
Entering Katana Kitten, I was a bit intimidated. After reading dozens of fawning, laudatory stories about KK (9th best bar in the world nbd), I felt like the new kid at school walking into class. To my pleasant surprise, the Kitten was down to Earth and welcoming, lined with Japanese movie posters and odes to the Tokyo night life. Icon and owner Masahiro Urushido was working tables like it was no thing. I normally shy away from dairy-heavy cocktails for my stomach’s sake, but the “Ichigo Milkshake” called out like a siren. Recalling a beautiful late-night milkshake served at a Jersey diner, the Ichigo was my favorite cocktail of the evening and the best I’ve had in recent memory. Everything was balanced perfectly and the whipping-topped masterpiece surprises at every taste. Worth a visit to Katana, worth a visit to NYC, worth a visit to the United States, get at it whenever you can. I fell hard for KK, and will put it at the top of my list for a return trip.
One of the reasons I find NYC’s cocktail bars so exhilarating is because so many of my favorite writers and artists drank really heavily at them. And if I have a vibe, it’s reading and writing while slightly addled. White Horse Tavern is steeped in this boozy pen history, with James Baldwin and Norman Mailer regularly holding court within its dark wood walls. Poet Dylan Thomas (more on him in a minute) stared down as I sat in his seat, warning or encouraging me. I wasn’t quite sure which. Anyway, the modern White Horse is not a quiet intellectual haunt, but rather a nice mix of the cheery and somber, with bright Christmas decorations abutting faded photos of Old New York. Service was fast and the happy-hour crowd was loud and celebratory. A fun spot to duck into for delirious fun or earnest introspection.
I kept the tipsy boho vibe going by stepping down into The Up and Up, a subterranean bar off raucous MacDougal Street. The bar’s was previously incarnated as the legendary Gaslight coffee house, where James Taylor and Bob Dylan performed and Jack Kerouac lived in the apartment upstairs. The current manifestation is decidedly more chic and modern but similarly convivial, I suspect. The cocktails were super special, the bartenders working fervently to put real killers together (try the Barricaded Mountaintop together, it’ll put pep in your step). A gray-haired beatnik might blanche at the luxe accoutrements at the new Gaslight, but in life it’s best to go with radical change and order the next one.
The surprise of the night went to Bandits. I don’t recall reading any fancy cocktail articles about it. Come to think of it, I have no memory of how I discovered the small Greenwich Village bar, tucked away on Bedford Street. But I certainly won’t forget it. Bandits is a kitschy, light-hearted reproduction of the Midwest dive bar your uncle visited too much, replete with Coca Cola ads and ugly wood paneling. I loved it, I really did. The service was exemplary, friendly hosts and bartenders quick on their toes. Bandit’s aesthetics and small touches were so mesmerizing and the energy so cheery, I barely remember what I drank. It was good, I think, but it really doesn’t matter. Bandits is the sort of place of down-home bar you should spend a lot of time at, if you have the chance.
If you’re going to do boheme and boozy NYC, you simply must visit the storied Hotel Chelsea. I could try to summarize the Chelsea’s colorful history, but others have done it so well. The Hotel’s walls have housed them all, from Arthur C. Clark to Allen Ginsburg to Janis Joplin to Sid Vicious. Transiting the Hotel’s perfectly normal lobby into the back bar triggers an otherworldly, Gotham-esque sensation. The bar evokes the Overlook’s ballroom, all lace and flourishes. Its hard working and friendly staff, bedecked in formal black and whites, hand out red hardback menus and well-stirred martinis. Oh, concerning White Horse Tavern-stalwart Dylan Thomas – apparently the poet drank at the Tavern, went to his room in the Chelsea, then died at the hospital. I was happy to reenact this journey a bit, but thankfully didn’t go all the way. If you want a glimpse of NYC through a velvety, soft-light looking glass, the Hotel Chelsea is the place.
One more, always one more in NYC! My last cocktail was ordered at Jungle Bird, a rum-soaked big-ol’ space that evokes late night in Santiago, except in Chelsea. Tropical art pieces and brass birds stare down at you from the walls, tempting you to sip all manner of citrus and spirit. The list’s variety is impressive – try the “Electric Feel” with apple brandy and moonshine for a real trip. A nice, relaxing spot for a nightcap, alone or with friends.
Hell of a time, hell of a time. Contrary to the clowns who wrote the City’s obituary years ago, the town is as inspiring and invigorating as ever. I am counting the days until my return in March!