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Drinking With William Grimes

The acclaimed author reflects on the early days of the cocktail revival, drinking at the Rainbow Room and his tenure as the restaurant critic for the New York Times.

William Grimes arrives at the Knickerbocker Hotel in Times Square with a sackful of Champagne. He’s in town for just a few hours, and it’s Thursday.

“Weekends are Champagne,” says Grimes, who, after three decades at the New York Times, now lives in Pennsylvania. “My wife, that’s her treat at the end of the week.” Living in a control state poses drinking challenges, so Grimes takes his opportunities when he sees them.

There’s no gin, whiskey or obscure liqueurs in his bag, as one might expect of someone with the level of cocktail-writer cred Grimes enjoys. But Grimes—who, with his glasses, graying brown hair, slightly rumpled look and quietly confident air, looks every inch the bookish journalist he is—says he’s really more of a wine guy. Still, when the server at the Charlie Palmer bar takes his order, he’s careful to specify rye and a lemon twist for his Manhattan. And, when he entertains guests at home, he still makes an effort to mix up a respectable round of drinks.

“If called upon I try to rise to the occasion,” he says. “I do have a certain reputation to maintain.”

That reputation was forged on a single volume, Straight Up or On the Rocks, a seminal work of cocktail history that turns 25 years old this year. The book went largely unnoticed when it came out in 1993, but has since grown into one of the ur-texts of the modern cocktail renaissance. While the greater world knows Grimes best for his tenure as the New York Times restaurant critic, from 1999 to 2003, to cocktail geeks, he’s one of the original wise men and women who gave a damn about the American cocktail’s lost history.

“When I wrote it,” says Grimes, “I thought, ‘There seems to be this little cocktail fad going on. Maybe it will last another 15 minutes.’ I certainly didn’t have any sense of a big audience. I think I made a total of $5,000 on that book, apart from the advance.”

Grimes did his research for Straight Up in the Stone Age, leafing through fat books of old newspaper clippings and scouring the shelves of the Library of Congress in search of vintage cocktail books, only to find that many of them had been stolen by sticky-fingered cocktail nuts. By comparison, today’s booze historians have it easy, lazily punching in “Daiquiri” or “muddler” into online newspaper databases and waiting for the results to pop up on their screens.

He signed the contract for the book while penning a cocktail column at Esquire called “The Drinking Man.” By the time he landed at the Times, Dale DeGroff was working his magic at the newly reopened Rainbow Room, an act Grimes got to witness and chronicle first hand.

“For my money, there were two bars that had a magical atmosphere that was unrepeatable,” says Grimes. “One was the old Blue Room at the Algonquin. It was a great experience to be there and just drink. The Rainbow Room had some of that quality. It had the feeling of intimacy and a sense of luxury. You were high enough above New York that you had this feeling of being adrift in the clouds.”

DeGroff’s days at the Rainbow Room have been so lionized that one can’t help but wonder if the whole episode hasn’t been plumped up a bit in retrospect. But, when I ask if the cocktails were really all that, Grimes doesn’t hesitate.

“They really were,” he says. “He really worked on them. This was his aria, his grand opera of the cocktail. The Sidecar he did was beautiful. It was a beautiful object to behold. The condensation on the glass gave it this pearlescent sheen.”

Grimes’ career at the Times can be easily divided into chapters: his cocktail period, followed by his stint as restaurant critic and, finally, his distinguished tenure at the paper’s vaunted obituary department. He, along with Margalit Fox and Bruce Weber, was one of the wry journalist stars of the acclaimed 2017 documentary “Obit.”

His death-notice days may have given him his next book. In April, 2016, he recorded the passing of a forgotten countercultural kook named Coca Crystal, who wrote for the East Village Other and hosted an early cable-access show called “If I Can’t Dance, You Can Keep Your Revolution.” He called her “a Holly Golightly for the Aquarian Age.” After the article appeared, Crystal’s sister paid Grimes a visit with Coca’s journals in tow.

“She left these diaries behind, and always had an idea of publishing them,” he recalls. “I’m trying to make something out of them. I see her as a window onto this vanished time.”

The diary story is just one of several serendipitous strokes of luck that seem to have propelled Grimes’ career from the first. For example, he never pitched the Straight Up book; an agent approached him with the idea. Even the restaurant critic post wasn’t sought. It just happened to him.

“I didn’t apply,” he says. “The opposite. The position became open and, as I understood it, they were doing a search. And since I was already in the Dining section, I was asked who I thought would be good.” If other people were considered for the job, it was Grimes who got the nod, beating out better-known food writers.

“It’s a peculiarity about the Times,” he explains. “You would think they would want the most famous food writer they could find, but there’s a host of other considerations. Can the person take direction? Can the person accept assignments? Can the person produce on time and in quality? Can the person write in newspaper format? Alan Richman was, I think, a likely person. But they decided no. He was such a pet at GQ that he would be impossible to issue orders to—to guide.”

Back then, with the Internet not as suffocating a force as it is today, it was still possible to dine anonymously. Still, Grimes was frequently identified, mainly because the New York Post had the malicious habit of handing out photographs of every Times restaurant critic to any eatery they could, “just to be mean.”

“If I got one visit in unrecognized, I felt pretty good,” he recalls. “Two, it would be great. At Italian restaurants, I never worried about it, because Italians just don’t give a shit. It’s just a blithe attitude. They couldn’t have cared less about all that.”

Grimes’ post-critic career has enjoyed considerably less pop-culture currency than some of his predecessors and successors in the position, such as Ruth Reichl and Frank Bruni. He concedes that this may have something to do with his personality, which is somewhat retiring and pleasantly low-key. One can imagine him adhering to the old-hat idea that journalists should be read and not seen.

As for cocktails, he has no plans to return to the topic. “I am kind of a restless person,” he says. “I move from topic to topic. I have observed with interest what’s been happening, but it’s not something I want to plunge back into.”

He can, however, still remember the beverage that first sparked his interest in mixed drinks. It was an Americano, served by the Italian wife of a sculptor, also Italian, who taught at the University of Chicago when he was a student there. “I had never heard of them,” he says. “They seemed very adult and sophisticated compared to what I had been drinking,” which had included Boone’s Farm apple wine and Pagan Pink Ripple, not to mention Schlitz, his first taste of alcohol, downed at a high school basketball game. “I thought, OK, this has changed my standards.”

It’s hard to imagine this subtly witty, gentleman scholar—the man with the $24 rye Manhattan in his hand and bag of Champagne by his side; the writer who recently penned the Times obit for chef Joël Robuchon; the guy who occasionally peps up commonplace white wine by dashing in a little crème de cassis—drinking Pagan Pink Ripple at any age.

“It was an alcoholic version of Hawaiian Punch,” he says with a light laugh and perhaps a faint glint of residual affection in the corner of his eye. “It was vile.”

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