Are New York’s Restaurant Bars Really That Bad?

New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells recently lamented restaurants' eagerness to create proprietary drinks, most of which he thinks fall short. Is it true that the city is amidst a dark age of cocktailing at restaurants? Regan Hofmann explores.

Going out for dinner used to be so simple. You started with a Martini, ordered a steak, finished up with a little cognac or port, and went on your merry way.

Then, life got complicated. Restaurants got more personal, with lengthy tasting menus and fusion cuisines. Bars became social events unto themselves, rather than the traditionally male retreat of the saloon. Cocktails went one way, and food went the other. Food got to keep wine in the divorce, while beer was shunted off to the bars, a bastard child barely appreciated there, either.

Over a long-overdue reconciliation, beer has become welcome again at the dinner table, wine has taken the spotlight in its own bars and watering holes got serious about serving snacks more satisfying than freezer-burnt mozzarella sticks. Now, finally, cocktails have been welcomed back by the restaurants they left behind, and the family’s back together. Time to celebrate.

Not so fast, according to the New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells. In a supplement to his weekly restaurant review on Wednesday, Wells lamented what he sees as a sorry trend in restaurant cocktails today, decrying restaurants’ drive to create proprietary new drinks that are, often, overcomplicated and unbalanced. Why won’t restaurants stick to “variations on classics like the margarita and the daiquiri” the way they used to? Why can’t he just have an Old-Fashioned?

On Eater, a reaction from critic Ryan Sutton listing a few of his favorite restaurants for cocktails took off in the comments. Gramercy Tavern, Prime Meats, Empellon Cocina—the list climbed to 40 strong within 24 hours. It’s clear that more and more restaurateurs are appreciating the value of the cocktail as part of the dining experience; the issue, for Wells, is the way in which they’re doing it.

In wine, the very same backlash happened as sommeliers and beverage directors began pushing the boundaries of restaurant wine lists, extolling esoteric and lesser-known varietals over the same old California cabs. From these sommeliers have come a world of new wine pleasures, from the massive popularity of rosé to a second life for long-misunderstood wines like Lambrusco and sherry. Cocktail professionals find themselves in this boat now, and the growing pains are just starting to be felt.

What restaurants are doing is getting personal with all aspects of the menu, from food to wine to cocktails. At Brooklyn Thai palace Pok Pok, cocktails incorporate chef Andy Ricker’s celebrated drinking vinegars and infuse gin with makrut lime, drawing the Southeast Asian flavors from the table to the glass for a seamless experience. At Fung Tu, sommelier Jason Wagner has built a list of cocktails like the Sherry Shao Xing that both reflect the restaurant’s modern Chinese philosophy and interact with the food in the same thoughtful way his wines do. At the Little Wisco group’s Fedora, bar manager Brian Bartels’ cocktail list is a pop culture-reference minefield, drink names as silly as their contents are serious. It’s a perfect match for a menu with dishes like egg in a hole with tripe ragout and a whitewashed dining room that frames photos of Jay Z.

While modern restaurants honor the chef’s palate, until recently, cocktails have been beholden to the imagined, often atavistic tastes of consumers. Ask any bartender and she’ll tell you that the most common requests she gets are for drinks that are “not too sweet,” “not too strong,” or, simply, “good,” echoing Wells’s dichotomy of cocktails that are either “good” or “not-good.” It’s clear that here “not-good” often means that which is unusual or confusing—in his mind, unnecessarily so. But tastes change, both individually and in the broader culture, and it’s in the diner’s best interests that restaurants keep taking new approaches to their cocktail menus. Even if all you want is an Old-Fashioned, the guy at the table next to you could have his eyes opened to the joys of amaro with one well-served drink.

In wine, the very same backlash happened as sommeliers and beverage directors began pushing the boundaries of restaurant wine lists, extolling esoteric and lesser-known varietals over the same old California cabs. From these sommeliers have come a world of new wine pleasures, from the massive popularity of rosé to a second life for long-misunderstood wines like Lambrusco and sherry. Cocktail professionals find themselves in this boat now, and the growing pains are just starting to be felt.

It may soothe them that the premier awards organizations for both the food and drinks industries have taken notice of the restaurant cocktail’s recent boom. Tales of the Cocktail added a Best Restaurant Bar category to its Spirited Awards in 2011 and a year later, the James Beard Foundation instituted a Best Bar Program award. Of the Beard award, Foundation vice president Mitchell Davis said, “It was an acknowledgment that as much time, if not more, is being spent on the bar programs these days as the wine program.” In the combined seven years of those awards, five have gone to New York City establishments.

The other two winners, it bears noting, were in San Francisco and Chicago, where the restaurant cocktail is also on the rise. One of the most heartening facts about the current cocktail renaissance is that it’s not limited to New York City, but is flourishing across the country. In many smaller cities, where there’s less demand for multiple high-end cocktail bars, ambitious bartenders are finding a warm welcome in fine dining. For cocktail-centric cities like Portland, Oregon and Charleston, SC, revered bars in restaurants like Clyde Common and The Ordinary means a better shot at keeping talent in town, rather than losing them to New York or LA.

As with all creative endeavors, some cocktail menus are more successful than others. It’s true that some really are not very good: hastily concocted, poorly prepared, ill-conceived. But the same is true of so many restaurants, and it doesn’t mean we should all go back to eating nothing but steaks and chicken à la king. It just means we keep trying.

And if you really don’t like it, you can always order an Old-Fashioned.

The Short List

Beyond Wells’ mention of the NoMad, Eleven Madison Park and Michael White’s restaurants, here is a cross-section of just a few of the many restaurants serving superior drinks.

Alder: The casual cousin to wd-50, is where bar manager Kevin Denton adopts chef Wylie Dufresne’s playfully experimental spirit in a rotating cast of cocktails—some available as “shorts,” the perfect size for pre-dinner.

Bar Sardine: The relaunch of what was the weirdest of the Little Wisco restaurants has thankfully retained its rebel spirit on the cocktail list, with drinks like the Black Pepper Grasshopper being served up by one of the best teams behind the bar, including the elegant and significant Kenta Goto, formerly of Pegu Club.

Betony: The drinks at this semi-stuffy midtown joint are as progressive as the tiny, pretty bites appearing from the kitchen. Much ado has been made about the clarified Milk Punch, and not for nothing. There’s also the Not a Mint Julep, which erases all expectations at its title, and then creates its own standards with an icy mix of Vouvray, basil and rum. Even with the classics, Betony loves sleight of hand—the G&T uses juniper-infused vodka.

Carbone & ZZ’s Clam Bar: Though these Major Food Group restaurants are wildly expensive and exclusive, the drinks by Death & Co. alum, Thomas Waugh, are terrific. Carbone’s Manhattan is deep, dark and full of cherry essence and the Rusty Nail (crafted with house made Drambuie) is not the Nail of your grandfather’s day. Next door at ZZ’s drink names are derived from their flavor concepts (pineapple, chai, marsala) and they often arrive in vessels that were probably meant for decoration (a giant brass pineapple, for instance). If that doesn’t delight, they’ve got rocks glasses for Margaritas and coupes for Daiquiris too.

Daniel: Truly one of New York’s most radiant bars, Daniel’s salon lounge acts as a seamless segue into the next several lavish hours. Its polite and charming bar staff can do all the classic tricks—Martinis, Old-Fashioneds, French 75s—but there’s something light and fruity for the neophyte (the un-ironic White Cosmo), and something weird and savory for the adventurous (the carrot-whiskey-cherry infused Easy Pickin’s). Warning: Like the food, the drinks come with a not-insignificant price tag.

Del Posto: A grand bar in an even grander space, Del Posto does classics correctly. Hemingway Daiquiris and Vespers are balanced, and so are all the newfangled cocktails that include ingredients like Sriracha bitters and horseradish syrup. Del Posto also turns the ultimate brunch drink on its head, serving fresh-peach Bellinis at dinner.

Donostia: Bar manager Will Peet (also a member of the NoMad bar team) works wonders with sherry and fortified wines at this tiny East Village tapas bar, making complex, compelling cocktails that seem to defy their beer & wine-only license. Bonus: Lower-proof cocktails mean you can drink a lot more.

Estela: There’s nothing complicated about the drinks here, but as much care is taken in their conception as is with the thoughtful, fresh food and wine list. A PDT alum created and honed the menu, and if it’s not the Americano Estela (gentian liqueur, vermouth bianco, gin, soda) or the classic Tuxedo #2 (gin, vermouth, Maraschino, absinthe ) you crave, the bartenders can handle all the old standards.

Fort Defiance: This Red Hook institution is so well known for its cocktails it can be difficult to remember it’s also a restaurant—until Sam Sifton raves about the chicken liver pate in the New York Times magazine. The all-day spot from the Pegu Club-trained St. John Frizell has been a neighborhood anchor and bar mecca since it opened in 2009.

Narcissa: The short list of proprietary drinks at Narcissa —most of them lower alcohol, aperitif-style cocktails that lean heavily on fresh produce—feel perfectly in sync with the seasonality and subtlety of chef John Fraser’s cuisine.

NoHo Hospitality Group (Bar Primi, Lafayette, The Dutch): Andrew Carmellini’s restaurant group has done a tremendous job of tailoring the cocktails to each restaurant’s ethos and palette of ingredients—from the Italian-style cocktails at Bar Primi to the simple, elegant drinks at Lafayette, which employ under-utilized ingredients like calvados and pear liqueur.

Prime Meats: Six years ago, bar director Damon Boelte spearheaded the “twist on a classic” movement with which Wells takes issue, and the drinks remain on point. Occasionally, the archaic Blue Blazer routine will come out on a slow night, and for those who just need them, there’s the Prime Manhattan and Prime Meats Old-Fashioned too.

Saxon & Parole: Winner of the 2013 Spirited Award for Best Restaurant Bar, the bar menu here was one of the first (and still best) to include non-alcoholic drinks that are as original and thoughtfully composed as the cocktails.

Ssäm Bar and Má Pêche: Cocktail menus in the Momofuku empire are equal parts classic, almost-classic (Má Pêche’s Seven Spice Sour is approaching canon) and brand-new, deploying Asian ingredients like yuzu and Japanese whisky.

Union Square Hospitality Group: Danny Meyer’s restaurants—most notably Gramercy Tavern and Maialino—continue to maintain excellent bar programs that have played host to some of New York’s most talented bartenders, from Jim Meehan to Jeff Bell.