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The State of the New York Steakhouse Martini

Two decades into the cocktail revival, how have these bastions of old-school drinking changed with the times?

When the cocktail revival was still ramping up, in the 1990s and early ’00s, there was a place in every large American metropolis where you could count on getting your cocktail order honored in respectable fashion: the steakhouse. Those dark-wood, obdurate bastions of traditional grub and values employed the sort of bartenders, and stocked the kind of back bar, that could meet the needs of the Martini, Manhattan or Old-Fashioned drinker. As long as you limited your calls to the iconic and familiar, you were set.

Then the mixology revolution swamped the nation with retro glassware, custom ice and bartender pedantry, and everything changed. But a funny thing happened at the stalwart steakhouses: nothing. They just kept on keeping on, serving up their fish-bowl, bone-dry, circa-1962 Martinis like they always had. The return of the gin Martini, the stirred Martini, the downsized Martini, the bottled Martini or the 50/50 Martini was of no more interest to them than veganism. They had something that wasn’t broken. They chose not to fix it.

This is not to say that the status quo has remained completely unshaken. In a recent survey of the bars at leading New York steakhouses I found that while the meat palaces have not exactly rolled with the changes, they have at least budged an inch or two. Vodka Martinis remain the dominant call of the suited, well-heeled Babbitts that make up the lion’s share of their clientele. Close behind it—and sometimes neck and neck—is the sloppy, savory Dirty Martini, also usually made with vodka. Vermouth is still used sparingly, if at all. And the disgustingly decadent blue cheese-stuffed olive, a staple garnish since the mid-1990s, still, inexplicably, reigns supreme.

But requests for gin Martinis have risen. And they stock more brands of both vodka and gin. More importantly, the number of questions has increased. The conversation doesn’t stop when you order a Martini. In most of Gotham’s great steakhouses, you will likely be asked: gin or vodka?; what brand?; up or on the rocks?; olive or twist?; shaken or stirred?

“These days, you have to fill out an application to order a Martini,” remarked the silver-haired Mike DeSimone, bar manager at Sparks Steak House in midtown Manhattan.

To find out which classic New York joints are holding up standards best, striking that balance between traditional Martini values and modern improvements, we visited six long-standing steakhouses. The call was kept consistent from joint to joint: gin Martini, made with Beefeater if they carried it, stirred and served up, with a twist. Proportions of gin to vermouth were never specified; neither was this reporter ever asked to specify. Here are the results, from best to worst.

Gallagher’s Steakhouse

Gallagher’s is a special case among New York steakhouses. When it reopened in 2014, following a revamp, management hired noted cocktail bartender Dominic Venegas to fashion the cocktail list. He brought the seasoned bar staff around to the idea of rendering classic cocktails with more finesse. The back bar is well-stocked with various gins, and Martinis are served in a smaller (but still sizable) coupe rather than a mammoth Martini glass. “People come there because they can have two Martinis,” quipped Venegas. Spirit-vermouth proportions are roughly three to one, with Dolin dry as the vermouth. Calls for Sahara-dry Martinis are still common, but the barkeeps will also make a 50-50 Martini without blinking.

The Martini: This, in my experience, is the best, most thoughtful steakhouse Martini in New York. The vermouth pour was less than the one-quarter that Venegas cited as the recipe, but it was still considerable. The drink was suitably chilled, balanced and near perfect. And, alone among the steakhouses in this appraisal, the twist was fresh and properly applied, rubbed along the rim of the glass and casting a spray of citrus oil on the surface of the drink. Enjoying the drink at the always-bustling central bar island just adds to the experience.

The Gin Martini at Gallagher's Steakhouse

Sparks Steak House

Like every steakhouse discussed in this article, Sparks serves a great many Martinis every day. Forty percent of those orders are made at the long, straight wooden bar which bisects the restaurant. More vodka Martinis are served than gin, and 95 percent of all Martinis are served up. If a customer doesn’t specify shaken or stirred, Sparks will shake the drink, and very little vermouth is used.

The Martini: The Martini was stirred in a pint glass over what is known as “crap ice.” (Don’t even think about looking for a Kold-Draft or Scotsman ice machine at a steakhouse.) It was served in a jumbo Martini glass—the de rigueur vessel at most restaurants of this ilk—and the vermouth choice was Cinzano dry. “It’s light,” said DeSimone. “I don’t use much.” The drink was ice cold, crisp and strong: a classic steakhouse Martini. No complaints.

Smith & Wollensky

Smith & Wollensky, part of the Quality Branded group, has a young, in-house bar director, Bryan Schneider, who has worked at Clover Club and Daniel. As a result, the steakhouse is more up on drinking trends than most. Vodka Martini requests outnumber gin 10 to 1, but when a gin Martini drinker walks in, the staff knows their customer. “Gin Martini orders, given with no specifics, we will do three to one with orange bitters,” said Schneider. “Vodka, with no specifics, we don’t bother with the vermouth at all.” Dorothy Parker Gin, out of Brooklyn, is the house gin and there is no house vodka, because “vodka drinkers always specify their brand.”

The Martini: I was asked more questions here about what sort of Martini I wanted than anywhere else. This was much appreciated. The bar had no Beefeater, so I requested Tanqueray. Dolin dry was the vermouth used and the glass was even bigger than the usual steakhouse birdbath. I’ve had fine Martinis here on previous occasions, but this version, while perfectly serviceable, was bruisingly strong, and it suffered from an insufficiently long stir. Lukewarm Martinis are a common danger at steakhouses, where bartenders are often very busy and prone to push out a cocktail before it’s ready. By the time I got halfway through, I was done with it; it had grown too warm.

Keens Steakhouse

More than 100 Martinis are sold here every day, ordered both from the bar and the table. Calls for gin and vodka are split about evenly, according to a manager. The house vodka is Wodka and the house gin is, unusually, Greenall’s out of the U.K. Just a splash of vermouth is employed and garnishes range from olives to twists to the ubiquitous blue cheese-stuffed olive.

The Martini: Of all the steakhouses, I got the lightest grilling from Keens. In response to “a Martini,” the bartender stood like a parking meter, silently waiting for me to provide more particulars. After a few seconds, I offered, “gin.” This stirred him to ask: “Up?” and “Olives?” He didn’t inquire if I wanted it shaken or stirred, but he stirred it anyway. The glass was big, but not filled to the brim, as was the case in the other steakhouses. But it was not nearly cold enough, making it a just barely satisfactory Martini. Much of this, however, was mitigated by the twilit, old-world charm of Keens bar room, a slice of the 19th century off Herald Square.

Palm Too

The Martini is Palm Too’s number-one cocktail order. More vodka than gin is served and “Dirty or not dirty?” is a typical bartender query. The majority are shaken (people like the ice shards on the surface of the drink, a bartender told me) and vermouth (Martini & Rossi) is used in scant amounts, if at all. Most customers go for blue cheese-stuffed olives, which the Palm is proud of, as they stuff them in-house.

The Martini: I answered the usual barrage of questions, which were, as always, welcome. The drink was colder than that at Keens, but not as cold as at Sparks, and was strong. It was an acceptable specimen, but a bit flat, lacking any spark or magic, perhaps owing to the temperature, the quality of the vermouth, the lack of life in the twist or a combination of all three.

Peter Luger Steakhouse

As ever, vodka is preferred over gin at Peter Luger. Gordon’s is the well gin, and Absolut the well vodka. David Berson, vice president of Luger, said a “decent” amount of vermouth is applied, olives are preferred over twists. “I think we’ve always served a very strong drink,” said Berson. “We like to showcase the spirits. I can’t see us ever having a craft cocktail list.”

The Martini: I knew going in this would be rough-going. I’ve ordered Martinis at Peter Luger for years and have yet to get a decent one. The bartenders are crusty old dogs who know they work in a cherished institution and have nothing to prove. The Martinis taste of indifference. The glasses are smaller than the norm, but better looking. A desiccated lemon twist was placed in my glass before the drink was poured, not after, and the stir was of the cursory, stab-the-mixing-glass-with-a-barspoon sort. Despite Berson’s claim that vermouth plays a role, the drink I got was 100 percent gin; the bartender said he almost never used vermouth. It was decently cold, though about one-fifth of it was spilled onto the bar as it was poured. It’s a good thing the place serves steaks, too.

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