Not Another New York City Speakeasy

Introducing "About a Bar," a new column that explores America's newest and most notable bars and cocktail programs. First up: New York City's Nitecap.

nitecap illustration james carpenter

After descending a set of inconspicuous stairs and wrestling with a dark velvet curtain, Nitecap’s mirrored bar emerges as a tiny horizon. Before the orderly seven-seat bar is a small section of low-slung crimson booths reminiscent of the kind of lounge seating perfectly suited to bottle service.

This new, subterranean hideout on New York’s Lower East Side is the handiwork of Natasha David, formerly of Maison Premiere, and two Death & Co. partners, Alexander Day and David Kaplan. As an extension of the family, it’s tempting to frame Nitecap as a sequel to Death & Co.—the brooding East Village bar that helped define the modern speakeasy—but aside from the less-than-obvious entrance there is nothing about Nitecap that announces “speakeasy.”

In fact, Nitecap is part of a group of openings that seem to mark a shift in the New York cocktail scene away from the bar as a hidden shrine to the craft and toward a model that feels looser and more confident. Nitecap has shed the Victorian parlor atmosphere and discarded the notion that cocktails must be strong, stirred and bitter to be taken seriously. Instead the bar says, blatantly, that it’s cool to like pink drinks and Robyn, and that drinking games and pineau des charentes most certainly do go together. Why not?

Time will reveal its true place amidst the tectonic shifting of Manhattan’s nightlife, but the early feeling is that Nitecap is defining the moment when the New York cocktail world finally did away with the bowties, arm garters, tie clips and ’20s jazz, and started having a little more fun.

In this brave new world, artisanal cognac and spritzers are not mutually exclusive and the usual coupe and double-old-fashioned glasses that signal “cocktail bar” are hardly present. In their place, there are enamel tin mugs piled high with crushed ice and mint bouquets and garnish picks skewered with what look like primary-colored abacus beads. Absinthe is poured from the mouth of a ceramic owl and vintage glassware is doled out in matched batches without precious ceremony.

These details are sweet and edgy without the appearance of great effort or contrivance. Each piece and part is adorable, but not without a hint of mischief. The menu, for example, labeled “Edition #1,” is meant for the taking. Not unlike Death & Co., the black and white square menu booklet is a seasonal labor of love, but instead of sketchy illustrations it’s packed with superhero graphics, cartoonish fonts and classic bar jokes. A middle spread is dedicated to a non-drinking game drinking game, which pokes law enforcement in the ribs with a wink at its reader. (“Nothing to see here officer. We would never encourage drinking. Frankly we don’t touch the stuff.”) The sections are labeled with titles like “Wash it Down” (aforementioned spritzers, foamy egg white drinks and royales), and “Late Night” which eliminates the guesswork with drinks like Pisco, Coke & Lime and the Honor Bar, a high-class, hipster version of bottle service: a bottle of booze handed over in exchange for a credit card and a gentleman’s word of honor. (Drinks are priced by the finger.)

Nitecap is slightly rambunctious and does not conceal its efforts to egg you on (drinks skew sweet, but highly slurpable) its poppy exterior is concealing a heavy dose of nerdiness. Where the usual Lower East Side bar might tap a bottle of Jaëger, Nitecap has unexpectedly rare, high-brow spirits like Domaine de Montreuil Reserve Calvados du Pays d’Auge and Bigallet China China Amer (alongside Old Grand Dad Bonded bourbon) tipped upside down and pegged to the wall to dispense at will. Intermingled with silly cocktail names like Oh You Fancy Shorty are ingredients like Jean Luc Pasquet Pineau des Charentes and Guillon Painturaud VSOP Cognac. There is a Bamboo (vermouth, sherry and bitters) on tap and a slim, quirky list of wines.

Time will reveal its true place amidst the tectonic shifting of Manhattan’s nightlife, but the early feeling is that Nitecap is defining the moment when the New York cocktail world finally did away with the bowties, arm garters, tie clips and ’20s jazz, and started having a little more fun.

There is evidence of this in almost every downtown neighborhood. Milk & Honey has moved uptown and in its place—not five blocks from Nitecap—is Attaboy, where two M&H alumni are dropping reservation policies and turning up the music. Just northeast, in Nolita, is Mother’s Ruin where every bartender can make a perfect Boulevardier, but also man a bar three-deep and pour vodka sodas without judgment. Not to mention the scores of dressed down Brooklyn bars where Sherry Cobblers are drunk alongside bottles of Miller High Life. These are places where you can get an incredible drink, but by no means are they claiming to change lives or stop time. Drinks, even if they’re served on hand-cut ice and made with three kinds of rare rum, are still drinks. Eliminate the pomp and circumstance, and you’ve got Nitecap where craft and conviviality are bedfellows winking at one another behind a velvet curtain.

TO DRINK

The Aperitif: Pinkies Out. Orange wine, chamomile Dolin Blanc vermouth, Cocchi Americano, verjus, Trabanco Poma Áurea Apple Cider, $13

The Shaken: Armed Robbery. Jalapeño Pueblo Viejo Blanco tequila, lime & pineapple juices, Lustau Amontillado sherry, Angostura bitters, $13

The Stirred: Bananarac. Old Overholt Rye, Tariquet VSOP Armagnac, Giffard Banane du Brésil, Bitter Truth Jerry Thomas bitters, Vieux Pontarlier absinthe, $13

The Digestif: Exit Strategy. Amaro Nonino, Germain-Robin Craft Method Brandy, Meletti amaro, salt, $13

Etc.: The Jukebox. Appleton VX Rum, Hamilton Jamaican Pot Still rum, Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao, cinnamon bark, cream, Coca-Cola, $12

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