I want to review today that new bar that recently opened nearby. It is actually a restaurant, but the main architectural feature is the bar, which dominates the wall. The food is really quite good, though a little weird in some parts of the menu. But as this is a cocktail blog, I’ll concentrate on the drinks, which are what make this place part of a newer phenomenon anyway.
A tremendous amount of thought and skill went into the physical design of the bar. The long, sweeping extent of the bartop, with its natural surfaced top, sends the message, “this is a place for serious drinks of substance.” The seating is also striking and unusual, but I think they spent a bit too much time and money on the unique legacy look, and not quite enough on the comfortable place to park my butt functionality. About half the stools wobble a little bit.
When a cocktail lover like myself sits down, the huge wall of the back bar shows so much promise it can’t help but bring a smile of anticipation to the face. There are tons of bottles back there, but no rows of identical flavored vodkas. There is no prominent display of any major, commercial brands, actually. They are all there, even the vodkas, but the bottles filling the featured spaces are a varied collection of the kind of product that is the hallmark of modern craft cocktails. Bottles from micro-distilleries, especially the local ones, are front and center, surrounded by an exotic imported gin, an Irish whiskey you don’t often see, and a bottle or two of Whistle Pig I think, or maybe it was some good Templeton. I’m not sure, but they have some good rye. The rum selection is a little meager, but hey… There are a number of the more useful liqueurs, all topped off by the real clinchers of modern cocktail insiderdom, a bottle of Fernet, another amaro or two, and a full bottle of Creme de Violette.
In the bartender’s workstation near your seat, you see a selection of bitters. Most of them are Fee’s though. I like Joe Fee a lot, and many of his products are extremely useful, but I do get a little sad when I see a bitters tray that is filled with a lone bottle of Ango and a bunch of Joe’s kids.
Whatever, the menu is very promising. A single sheet, the back side is all beverages. The front is a fairly mouth-watering array of that slightly weird food I mentioned above. (Even if you are only there for a drink or two, get the fries.) On the side that matters for this review, there are a bunch of micro-brews. Someone has gone to great lengths to ensure that each one has been carefully selected so that a guy like me will have never heard of any of them. But the hops nerd three stools down will be making excited noises, which is as much recommendation as I need if suds are your thing.
The wine offerings are perfunctory.
The cocktail list will reignite your anticipation. It is a nice collection of standards offered correctly (the Margarita is served up, not blended, for instance), and some appealing sounding house cocktails. Only a few of them are vodka and sweet things in a glass, the rest are made with real spirits. One of the better bartenders downtown consulted on the list from what I hear, so there is a nice, broad selection.
The renewed anticipation is a problem, since it may take a bit for one of the surprisingly large number of bartenders to actually take your order. The problem isn’t sloth. Everybody back behind the stick is working their butts off. But the head bartender is a grizzled vet of maybe 28 years old, and his underlings, all identically attired in jeans and black logo-bearing t-shirts, are fresh-faced and, um, fresh-fingered. When you watch them work, you can see that they each need to think about each move as they do it, work on only one drink at a time, and spend time searching each time they turn to get a bottle from that marvelous, promising back bar…. They aren’t fast, is what I’m saying. The lead guy seems to know his stuff reasonably well, but he’s spending most of his time taking care of the servers or answering questions from his assistants.
The house originals from the menus, when they finally arrive, are quite tasty. They are not up to the finest offerings from Dead Rabbit, but they don’t cost sixteen bucks, and this isn’t a multimillion dollar signature bar in lower Manhattan either. But the test of a good bar is how they deliver drinks beyond the 14 menu items they make over and over again. That is the terrain that separates the craft cocktail bar from the place that has ambitious cocktails. This place has ambitions…. Try ordering an Aviation, or some other new era rediscovery. The results, after further delay to consult with the Boss on its recipe, will not excite. I don’t mind a bartender consulting a recipe book or app. I do it myself on drinks I’ve been making for ten years. But go to the book. Don’t ask over the shoulder of head bartender who is frantically trying to get orders out to the servers who are stacked up over the service bar station like FedEx jets over Memphis airport at 3AM. If he knows the answer, and if he gets it right, and if your bartender hears it correctly, it still will take forever and still be spotty in the results.
I really shouldn’t harp on the service speed in and of itself. I’m a Craft Cocktail™ guy. We fetishize slow service as the hallmark of hand-crafted excellence. A really good cocktail bartender takes her time making a drink because she is being exacting, and frankly because she understands what is happening in the tin or glass before her. The staff here is taking a long time because they don’t. The jiggering is neither crisp nor consistent; the shake is either just long enough to combine the ingredients, or so long as to over-dilute the drink; and the stirs last until something else distracts the bartender. They don’t pipette the drinks, so they don’t know whether, in their distraction, they got it right. And if they did pipette the drinks, I’m not sure they have the palate developed yet to judge the results, especially for a drink they don’t often make.
To be clear, this staff is a bunch of good, hard-working kids. They deserve a good tip. They are friendly and genuinely want to serve you a quality drink. The problem is that they don’t know if they are or not, and they don’t know that they don’t know.
The place isn’t very near the main entertainment district, so most of the clientele don’t often hit any of the really good cocktail places in town, if ever. They don’t know that they are getting really pretty ordinary cocktails, billing themselves as this new wave of Craft Cocktails. In fact, chances are a Manhattan they order here would be no better than, if not worse, than the one they’d get from Steve at the dive bar a few blocks over whose t-shirt has stains older than the staff here.
This upsets me because for most of these customers, this is their sole experience with what is billed as Craft Cocktails. What they will get here will be OK, of course. And certainly a slight cut above what they are used to from their usual haunts. But what they are missing is the magic. And because they haven’t had it anywhere else, they won’t know they are missing it. They won’t insist that this place keep training hard to eventually deliver it. And worst of all, won’t go looking for it and reap the enriching rewards of doing so. Instead, all they will remember will be the fries.
They really are good.
So what’s the name of this place, and where is it? Well, this is a bad review, and I don’t name names in bad write-ups on this blog. It’s just a policy of mine. But more to the point, this isn’t a review of any specific place. It’s a review of hundreds of bars all over the country. Most of them are in suburban areas, but not all. The details may differ a bit from those in this post, but not much. I guarantee that you’ve hit a few of these places yourself.
And they piss me off. Every time I got to one for the first time, I’m first disappointed, then grumpy. I see a joint where the owners are simply chasing a trend that they just. don’t. get. Worse, I see a whole bunch of customers, some portion of which might really catch the drinks bug if this place delivered, and a lot more of which would appreciate and patronize other premium bars if their experience here was a higher value. Instead, I view a place like this as almost poisoning its own micro market area. If they fail, locals will say of the next place, “They say they are doing craft cocktails? Didn’t the place down the street have those? They weren’t anything special. And they went OB, so I doubt this one will work either.” Worse, the place might succeed. Then it will keep reinforcing the image of mediocrity in craft cocktails and make it even harder for someone else to come in and do it right.