The Wonks Take Manhattan: A Boozy Crawl Through New York’s Best Cocktail Bars

Mrs. Wonk and I recently spent a long weekend in New York City. While the stated reason was for the La Maison & Velier U.S. launch, the unofficial reason was to blaze through as many of top-rated cocktail bars as possible in four nights.

Partly to record my own scattered thoughts for future trips, but also to aid other cocktail travelers with a night or two in the Big Apple, I’ve laid down some quick impressions of the cocktails venues we hit. Some were on our “Must Visit” list, and others were places we stumbled into with our rum-soaked companions. Let it be said that this list is by no means comprehensive or representative of all New York City has to offer—just a travelogue of our boozy weekend.

As a home bar enthusiast, I regularly seek out unusual flavor combinations and interesting cocktails. I take many things into account when evaluating a bar, but first and foremost, I look for bars that show me something new, recipe-wise. Thus I scan cocktail menus closely, assessing which drinks truly intrigue me – looking for the drink that I simply can’t leave without ordering. Even many well-loved bars only have three out of ten drinks that grab my eye. It’s exceedingly rare for every cocktail on a menu to light up my interest. But it does happen. See below!

A very important point: In what follows, my “menu interest” rating represents how intriguing I found the menu. So a 4/10 means that for every ten drinks, four jumped off the page at me. Points are only granted for cocktails that strike me as something innovative and exceptional; classics and obvious spins on classics don’t earn any cred here. It’s worth noting that many of my favorite bars would only rank around 4/10.

But again, many factors make a great bar, not just the menu. First and foremost, hospitality and staff knowledge go a very long way in my book. So just because a ranking below says 3/10 doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy our time at the rail.


 Rum House

A decent rum selection, but nothing hard-core rummies won’t have already seen. In the Times Square zone/theater district, so is beset by tourists with little notion of craft cocktails. Libations are on the small side and not particularly challenging. Missed opportunity: The Hamilton cocktail doesn’t include any Hamilton rum—but the folks grabbing a drink before the Broadway musical are not throwing away their shot

Menu interest: 1/10


Employees Only

Visually, Employees Only has a lot going for it—an art deco/European design flair, with glass shelves on the back bar holding an impressive spirits collection. There are plenty of seats at the curved bar, and with dining seating in a back room. The décor is art-deco themed. A roaring fire in an impressive fireplace kept things cozy.

Employees Only, NYC
Employees Only, NYC

The cocktail menu offered a few interesting things, but mostly seemed to be twist on classics, sours in particular. Drink execution is solid. The food selections are well-executed and suitable for dinner. But nothing that knocked our socks off, other than the Saturday evening crowd’s penchant for ordering tequila sodas by the handful.

Menu interest: 3/10


Pegu Club

We were particularly excited to visit Pegu Club, as one of Mrs. Wonk’s longtime favorite cocktails is the Old Cuban, conceived by Audrey Saunders, owner of Pegu Club. The décor is upscale, understated, and elegant. Lots of polished wood and dim lighting, with an old-school Asian flair. A very long rectangular bar holds lots of seats, and there are plenty of low-slung lounge seats and table seating to be had.

Pegu Club, NYC
Pegu Club, NYC

The cocktail menu is leather-bound and well laid out, with a few nice surprises. Food-wise, you won’t go lacking for great options—don’t miss the scallop sliders

Menu interest: 5/10


PDT

PDT is consistently named one of the world’s best and most innovative bars. Truly a speakeasy, accessible only via a beat-up phone booth inside the Crif Dogs hot dog shop on St. Marks Place near Avenue A. Once inside, you’ll find a relatively small space–room for perhaps ten at the bar and a few booths. Don’t expect to roll in here with a crowd of eight and get through the door immediately. Quirky décor features a shattered mirror-ball style bathroom and taxidermy animals – I drank practically within the gnarly claws of a bear emerging from the wall, named Paddington, of course.

The PDT cocktail book is a great resource, and the menu for our visit stayed true to those high standards. Food-wise, your menu is a few selections from neighboring Crif Dogs, on the other side of the wall. Reservations are same-day, via phone only, beginning at 3pm sharp. Mrs. Wonk and I started dialing as soon as possible, and 188 (oh, yes) calls later, we landed a 1:30 AM reservation. Luckily, we took a chance and turned up early, and were able to slip in by midnight.

Menu interest: 7/10


The Office NYC

A spinoff of Chicago’s legendary Aviary Restaurant/Bar and associated “The Office” speakeasy. Located on the 35th floor of the Mandarin Oriental at Columbus Circle, the NYC Aviary bar has fantastic views. But tucked in the back, behind an unmarked door, lies The Office – a windowless, clubby, leather and wood-filled drinking club.

The concept of both the Chicago and NYC versions of The Office is an impeccable selection of vintage spirits. The cocktail list is equally stunning, with innovative drinks drawing from the Aviary’s world famous culinary experimentation. The food selections, connected with the Aviary, are outrageously expensive and outrageously good. Think $60 ricotta gnudi, covered with a blanket of fresh shaved golf-ball sized black truffle. You won’t leave The Office without spending a pretty penny, but you’ll be glad you did.

Menu interest: 6/10


Death & Company

Walking through the East Village,  stumbling across the entrance to Death & Co. can be a bit startling. The storefront, covered in wood planks, gives the impression of an abandoned house. Once past the doorperson, you’ll find Death & Co. to be very inviting, assuming dimly candle-lit, craft cocktail bars are your thing. The bar top holds space for twelve or so, and a good number of booths work for larger groups.

Like the Death & Co. book, the bar’s menu is filled with delightful surprises. It took me a good ten minutes to pick my first drink – too many good choices! Our bartender, Shannon, was on point and very knowledgeable. The food is worthy – slightly elevated bar fare. Like Seattle’s Canon, Death & Co. successfully straddles being both a world class destination bar and a place you could imagine drinking at every week or two. Don’t miss this one!

Menu interest: 9/10


Amor y Amargo

A few doors down from Death & Co. is Amor y Amargo (“Love and Bitters”). A relatively small affair, bringing to mind a French or Italian neighborhood bar tucked away on a side street, the concept here is, unsurprisingly, bitters and bitter liqueurs, aka amaro. The back bar holds a truly astounding collection of obscure bottles. The short cocktail menu features all manner of bitter-forward cocktails, with no fresh juice. And the staff is more than happy to make new twists on bitter cocktail classics like the Negroni. You’ll also find a good selection of non-potable bitters for sale.

Menu interest: N/A. We were in Sother’s capable hands.


Cienfuegos

Cienfuegos is a sister bar to Amor y Amargo. Through a narrow doorway and up a set of stairs, you emerge into a 1930s era Cuban fantasy. The aquamarine ceiling and white leather booths set this apart from your ordinary bar. The actual bar area is tucked into a small corner, and more for the service staff than for sitting at. However its shelves contain an impressive collection, with some high end, wonky rums to be found. The staff love their rum!

Being a Cuban inspired spot, the drink menu naturally focuses on rum/tropical drinks. Most of the drink menu can be made as a single cocktail, though the focus of the menu is punch bowls, in various sizes. We tasted through many of the selections on a return visit and found them all tasty and well-executed! The food menu is vegan and Latin-inspired.

Menu interest: 6/10


Mother of Pearl

Yet another sister bar of Amor y Amargo and Cienfuegos, Mother of Pearl sits directly below Cienfuegos. It’s billed as a Polynesian bar and restaurant, but quite different than classic Tiki. Unlike a Tiki bar, Mother of Pearl’s décor is brighter and tropical – green and white, with bright inlaid, patterned tile dominate the look, rather that thatch and natural wood. If you’re expecting Smuggler’s Cove or the Mai Kai, you might look elsewhere (not that you can currently find much in the way of true Tiki in New York City—but that’s a discussion for another time).

The small bar holds room for about six, but there’s ample table and booth seating. The cocktail menu is heavy on Instagram-worthy theater, e.g. unusual vessels and garnishes. The drinks sail near Tiki waters without veering into Mai Tais and Zombie-land. I can’t comment on the execution because, honestly, it was the end of a very long evening of bar hopping, but a good time was had by all.

Menu interest: N/A. We were in Sother’s capable hands.


Colibri

A rum-focused bar in the East Village. Dark interior with lots of oversized plants providing ambience. Bar seating for eight or so. A solid but not stellar rum selection. The cocktail menu has some decent selection, but isn’t overly ambitious.

Menu interest: 2/10


Attaboy

Attaboy is the spiritual evolution of Milk and Honey, Sasha Petraske’s legendary bar that changed the face of craft cocktails.  Now helmed by Sam Ross (creator of the Penicillin cocktail), Attaboy comes across as an intimate, dark industry bar. The main bar has seats for twelve, with a few booths in the back. There’s no cocktail menu – tell your server or bartender what you’re after and they’ll craft something on the spot. Across six drinks with our party of three, each cocktail was spot on tasty and innovative.  Not necessarily a bar for the casual crowd, but cocktailians won’t want to miss out on this spot.

Menu interest: N/A. There is no menu!


Mother’s Ruin

A great, casual light night spot, open till 4 AM. The late-night bar food is the star of the show here (kitchen open til 3:30am), while the short cocktail menu is mildly interesting and competently executed. A lively, neighborhood joint feel. Don’t go here for high-end craft cocktails in a quiet environment.  But if you’ve got a crowd of people and are looking for something way above your typical late-night diner, give Mother’s Ruin a look.

Menu interest: 1/10


Dead Rabbit

There’s a small handful of bars around the world that you know will be a truly special experience the moment you enter. The upstairs cocktail bar at Dead Rabbit, known as The Parlor, is one of these truly destination spots, worthy of a pilgrimage. The lighting, back bar, décor, staff, and menu are all on point – polished to perfection. They’ve earned the eight Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Award glass plates that decorate the top of the back bar.

The dark, candlelit space has plenty of seating at the bar, and comfy, cozy nooks with booths and tables. The huge cocktail list, in the form of a comic book, is a challenge to get through – simply because every drink recipe catches your eye – something you don’t want to miss. The staff, in red dress shirts and black suspenders, are welcoming while crisply executing your drink order. We easily could have spent six hours here, but one more bar beckoned us before leaving NYC.

The downstairs bar at Dead Rabbit functions as an Irish pub, albeit with an overwhelming Irish whiskey collection. The food is tasty, and the short cocktail menu is worthy, while in no way competing with the artistry upstairs.

Menu interest: Upstairs (10/10). Downstairs (2/10)


BlackTail

Of all the bars our boozy friends told us not to miss, BlackTail was consistently on their lists. Owned by the same team as Dead Rabbit, BlackTail pulls out all the stops to create an immersive experience, in the renovated Pier A building near Battery Park City. The décor evokes prohibition-era Cuba, and no expense was spared. An enormous mural of Columbus dominates the back bar, and the space is packed with Cuban memorabilia and photographs. I nerded out for at least ten minutes over some framed 1950s-era Bacardi correspondence.

The drinks are, as you’d expect, tropically focused but substantially evolved from the traditional classic recipes. The vast selection of cocktails were almost all winners, and were executed efficiently and quickly by the staff, five strong behind the lengthy bar. The Caribbean inspired food menu also gets a solid thumbs up. My one bit of critique is that in following its early 1900s Cuban theme, BlackTail creeps ever so slightly over the line into campy, TGI Friday’s territory. The color-coordinated, black and orange Guyabera-style bartender uniforms certainly played a part. But seeing as BlackTail is located in a tourist-dense area, you can’t blame them for catering to the more casual drinker looking for a destination bar experience.

Menu interest: 8/10


Fourteen bars in four days doesn’t match up with our epic London bar crawls, but Mrs. Wonk and I felt like we made a solid pass through much of the high-end New York City bar scene. Hopefully my barfly-focused observations help you to plan your own wonky New York City bar trek.

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