A New York bar is a cathedral and the bartender is its priest. That was not a metaphor. The person pouring drinks offers you the communion goblet from an altar, listens to your troubles from the confessional, sermonizes from a lectern. You think, maybe this person has wisdom from some beyond. Maybe this person can really save me. Bartenders, at their best, possess grace.
Though not all monsignors are perfect, and likewise, not every guy slinging whiskey sodas should be knelt down to. But in the joints and pubs where cocktails really matter, there’s a person who runs the show, a well-rounded human being who makes the simple transaction of ordering a drink a ritual, a sacrament. And oftentimes these people are the reason some bars get all the attention, all the buzz and all the repeat customers: there is security that comes with the knowledge that certain person is going to make sure they have a good time. Here are the guys that do it best, the most legendary bartenders in New York City.
113 MacDougal St.
New York, NY 10012
Note: When Keith McNally took over Minetta Tavern some years ago, the place already had a history and an ambiance built in. Any review of the place would mention that Hemingway once drank there, and so did Joe Gould, the famous Greenwich Village misfit immortalized in The New Yorker. And despite its age, the place had managed to retain most of its deco beauty through the decades. Still, any McNally venture is a pick-me-up, and the owner thought a few improvements could be made. Along with redoing the interior, he brought some muscle from the mothership – that would be Balthazar – to head up activity behind the bar. That’s how Francois Morrison ended up at Minetta Tavern, dishing out bon mots, cocktails and bone marrow to patrons too impatient to wait for an actual table. The service at Minetta is impeccable, but if you dine at the marble bar instead of the white tablecloths, you’ll get a little bit of sass from Francois – and you probably deserve it. No, you can’t drink that wine with that appetizer, he will tell you. No you can’t put cheese on a Black Label Burger, he will tell you. And no, you should not ask that girl at the end of the bar for her number, he will tell you. Francois may seem fussy, but Francois is right, and you are wrong, and the sooner you realize this, the better your time at Minetta Tavern will be.
77 W Houston St.
New York, NY 10012
Note: The Pegu Club on Houston Street is not the first bar by that name. In the early 1800s, British army captains set up a gentleman’s club in Rangoon called Pegu Club, and its renown stretched far over the continent, giving rise to the expatriate drinking community in Asia and also the then-famous Pegu cocktail. That original saloon is now long gone, but its legacy lives on at Audrey Saunders’ venerated cocktail haunt, the place that helped launch a full-on mixology movement in Manhattan. Saunders honed her skills at no less of a drinking Vatican than the Bemelman’s Bar, in The Carlyle, and when she set out to start a place of her own, the inventive concoctions she came up with at Pegu Club started a frenzy. There is so much attention to detail here, from the slow-melting giant ice cubes to the precise measurements that make every drink perfect. Saunders may not always be around to make the drinks personally, as she’s a married woman who can’t spend her days in bars anymore, but her spirit is still infusing every order at Pegu Club. Go have a strange cocktail and pretend, for a second you’re not on Houston Street, you’re in Rangoon.
510 Hudson St.
New York, NY 10014
Note: The cocktails at Employees Only are not simple. One invention, dubbed “The Provencal,” blends into its gin fragrant hints of lavender and herbs de provence. It’s a place where the vanilla is tahitian, the mezcal is illegal, and the vermouth is infused with chai. There are absinthe bitters, Bittermen’s Hellfire bitters, and chocolate bitters. These complications don’t slow down Steve Schneider, the principal bartender at Employees Only. He’s a three-time fastest bartender champion. He can make this drinks with the speed it takes other barkeeps to snag a Budweiser from the fridge. But even this bullet point on the resume may not be Schneider’s most memorable character tic. He’s known to emerge from the back with a sledgehammer so big he could have borrowed it from Thor. Then he sets before himself a crater of ice and smashes into it like he’s playing Whack-A-Mole. Perhaps such violent action is at odds with the genteel old-world feel of Employees Only, but his preferred method of breaking up the cold stuff in cocktails has earned him a place in the bartender pantheon.
915 3rd Ave
New York, NY 10022
Note: Tending bar at P.J. Clarke’s isn’t really a job. It’s a career. You can’t just have anyone serving drinks to such an illustrious clientele: The Third Avenue institution was always the last stop of the night for Frank Sinatra, and in “The Long Weekend,” the bender went on thanks to the whiskies at P.J. Clarke’s. In recent years, the main man behind that long slab of wood was Doug Quinn, a dapper gentleman always in French cuffs and a bow tie, always with a joke or a relevant anecdote. In his head is a rolodex filled with the names and faces of men and women, some of them even famous, and when they walked into P.J. Clarke’s Doug knew what they wanted. No lesser authority than Frank Bruni, the restaurant dean at The New York Times, remarked of Quinn’s innate ability to serve cocktails, “My mother had eyes in the back of her head; Doug Quinn must have them in the palms of his hands.” Quinn left the ancient place a few years back, but he stayed busy, bartending at Bill’s Food and Drink (formerly Bill’s Gay Nineties). And finally, in May, he will open his own spot, Hudson Malone, just two blocks from P.J. Clarke’s. He’s said it will be “a real New York saloon.” We wouldn’t have it any other way.
Experimental Cocktail Club
191 Chrystie St
New York, NY 10002
Note: New Yorkers are now used to a culture that promotes cocktails with ten-odd ingredients, prepared by men who measure the potions like chemists. Over in Paris, though, the idea was still a novelty. A drink was wine, brandy maybe, and under no circumstances would you mix these two competing entities in the same glass. Quelle Horreur! Then came Experimental Cocktail Club, a speakeasy modeled off the mixology bars that had taken over New York. Parisians went gaga over the “American-style” cocktails, and the place spawned two sister bars and another Experimental Cocktail Club in London. Then, in a fit of sly hubris, the Parisians thought they could invade the turf they pilfered from, and opened a location on Chrystie Street, smack dab in the middle of the Lower East Side. And, wouldn’t you know, it’s great. Part of what makes the PDT-by-way-of-Paris vibe work is Nicolas de Soto, bartender extraordinaire, world traveler, and overall charmer. One would have to possess excellent fine motor skills to perfectly mix a drink that has both Rittenhouse Rye and red wine (they call it a “Memphis sour”), but in addition to having that, de Soto is also prone to crack a smile, adding just enough winking humor to a place that, without it, might be a bit too self-serious. So swing by, choose the most exotic-sounding drink on the ever-changing menu, and watch Nicolas work his magic. Somehow, the French managed to out-New York New York itself.