“Everything we do here is bastardized,” grins Thomas Waugh, the beverage director at ZZ’s Clam Bar in New York City. “But bastardized to be better.”
Upon ducking into ZZ’s, Major Food Group’s tiny, reservation-only seafood joint, this bit of information is not obvious from the outset. From the street, ZZ’s looks like it could be a gentleman’s club or a miniature music venue: the windows are concealed with a dark curtain, and only the double-letter moniker glowing in blue neon alludes to occupancy. That and the large, suit-clad man standing like a dark column in front of the Thompson Street doorway. Inside, the room is a shoebox. There are four tables with twelve seats.
The theme is subtly oceanic, but it’s hard to tell why. Gilded chairs with high seat backs and black and blue-checkered floors pop in the candlelight. The showpiece of the room is in the back left corner—a marble-topped bar barely bigger than a TV tray bathed in warm light and crowded with bowls of citrus, beakers of juice and bundles of herbs. Behind the counter, a bartender in a white tuxedo jacket elegantly shakes metal tins full of cracked ice, cuts fruit into origami garnishes, flames cinnamon sticks into a cloud of aromatic smoke, and then glides out from behind the bar to deliver drinks—wearing no pants. Just a jacket, gold bowtie and booty shorts.
That’s where the bastardization begins.
A single round might include a white ceramic Buddha-shaped glass, belly poked through with a straw, a hand-painted bone china teacup sitting atop a dainty, mismatched saucer and a whole fuzzy coconut spiked with a smoking stick of Sri Lankan cinnamon.
Throughout a night at ZZ’s, fantastical things float by. Heads turn. Murmurs rise and fall. Oysters arrive in waves, as does clam toast, slices of tuna crudo and iridescent sardine fillets. But it’s the drinks—named for their dominant flavor or inspiration—that consistently give way to googly eyes. A single round might include a white ceramic Buddha-shaped glass, belly poked through with a straw, a hand-painted bone china teacup sitting atop a dainty, mismatched saucer and a whole fuzzy coconut spiked with a smoking stick of Sri Lankan cinnamon. Applause and cooing often follow.
ZZ’s owners—Mario Carbone, Rich Torrisi and Jeff Zalaznick—wanted to create a space that felt otherworldly. Waugh, formerly of Death & Co., was tasked with translating this feeling into cocktails by going beyond “just putting liquor in a glass.” He wanted to infuse the experience with a very tactile sense of wonder.
“How good your drinks are has everything do with what’s going on around you,” says Waugh, “the smells, the sounds, the things you’re touching.” He began by banishing the idea of run-of-the-mill glassware. Instead, he hunts eBay, Etsy and online auctions for singular vessels to fill ZZ’s shelves. Whereas most bartenders start with the idea of a drink and then match it with its corresponding glassware, Waugh will often lets the glassware inform his concept and structure for a drink. For instance, when he sourced the laughing Buddha glass, he says, “I knew I wanted that drink to be spiritual.” In went Green Chartreuse VEP, a liqueur made by French monks (and costs upwards of $120 per bottle, wholesale), gin for its evocation of botanical elixirs, cardamom tincture, vanilla bean syrup and rhum agricole. He named it Cardamom.
The Pineapple, served in an actual two-piece burnished brass pineapple, is also a consistent head-turner. One of Waugh’s design-minded friends turned him on to the pieces suggesting that they might make interesting candleholders or decoration. Instead, he repurposed them for one of his existing drinks, a mixture of fresh lime and pineapple juices, house made limoncello, gin and sugar cane syrup. The top is cracked open to reveal a mountain of crushed ice and a drift of saffron colored chamomile powder. Upon hoisting the drink to one’s lips, the sheer weight of the vessel invites guests to pass it from one set of hands to another.
Before ZZ’s opened, the cocktails bore more complicated, quasi-related titles. But when the time came for the bar to open its doors, Waugh was having a difficult time naming the final cocktail. He went to ZZ’s owners and they wondered aloud: “What if they didn’t name the drinks at all?” Chefs don’t arbitrarily conjure up names for their dishes. Oysters are oysters and veal parmesan is veal parmesan. In agreement, they decided to treat the cocktail menu just like they might a food menu—by calling out the base flavor or ingredient and leaving the rest to a guest’s imagination. In the case of ZZ’s, imagination rarely does the final drink justice.
Most of Waugh’s drinks play on a classic structure, but are cut from their classic constraints and placed into a fantastical context—a whole coconut or a century-old teacup—resulting in an experience that is nothing if not transporting.
“You can plan 90% of the experience and the remaining 10%, you’ve got to keep loose,” says Waugh. It’s that spontaneous 10% that keeps ZZ’s from feeling like a performance, and more like a trip through Waugh’s very own Emerald City.