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The Problems With $20 Cocktails in NYC

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A cocktail… and a sidecar of stale popcorn?
Photo: Grub Street

Generally speaking, menus are meant to be helpful tools. But there was a time, just a few years ago, when the city’s cocktail menus felt as if they were designed to confuse and disorient New York’s drinkers. All those tinctures and hard-to-get citrus fruits — not to mention the preponderance of obtusely named liqueurs made by monks or Italians (or both) — would throw you off by design. Instead, you’d put your trust in your bartender to combine all that stuff into something you’d actually enjoy. Usually, and especially at standout establishments such as Employees Only, Clover Club, and (the original) Mace, the risk was worth the reward.

Lately, however, I find myself encountering the same big problem, which is that bartenders and drinkers both seem bored. Everything is either a martini, a daiquiri riff, or something you’ve never heard of that is still only about as complicated as an old-fashioned. Somewhere in the mix of to-go drinks, outdoor dining, staffing shortages, and rising prices for operators, the true spirit of the cocktail has become muddled. This is not to say all drinks are bad these days — I still can’t believe how much I loved my “Waldorf Salad” cocktail at the back room of Double Chicken Please — but there are a few prevailing trends that have combined to make many of the city’s bars less enjoyable than they once were.

Cocktails have always been expensive, in theory, but they’re competing with the price of food at this point. Time was, if you ordered a $20 drink in a restaurant, it was a very special drink. But now the average Manhattan in Manhattan is basically that much. At actually expensive bars and restaurants, the price of entry is more like $25. When I finally got to try Temple Bar (I was turned away at the door the first time I tried to go), I thought my “Navy Strength” martini was nicely balanced, and I would have liked to linger over it — but I resented having to drink it in a place that was standing-room only. If a drink costs $21, it had better come with a place to sit. Yes, everything is more expensive than it used to be, but the sticker shock on cocktails that require four ounces of brand-name liquor has consistently left me feeling annoyed.

I actually don’t mind a $25 cocktail if it’s exceptional — I’m still thinking about the nice tequila number I had at Marea — but too often, execution is neglected in favor of simplicity that mostly feels boring. I don’t think anyone needs to return to a time where bartenders were infusing whiskey with bacon, but I would appreciate a little more daring than most drink menus offer. When a bar’s big creative swing is that it turned its espresso martini into a slushy, it feels like we’ve all lost the thread a little bit.

I recently went to a relatively new restaurant in Chinatown where I was served a cocktail in a rocks glass with a tiny container of stale popcorn clipped to the rim. Why? That’s the same question I ask myself when I’m confronted with ideas like a five-spice espresso martini, or yet another high-low spin on the Long Island Iced Tea (it was funny the first few times, but …). We all want to have a good time, yet the stream of riffs and jokes and winks that defines drinks right now makes it hard to take any of them seriously. There was a time — like 2014 — when subpar bars adopted the ideas of superior places, but struggled to execute them well. Now it feels like hardly anyone is even trying.

The problems become more pronounced on those rare occasions when I do encounter something I love, so before I sign off, let me single out one recent highlight: the “White Zombie” that I recently ordered at Sunken Harbor Club, a tiki drink that got an unexpected lift from the addition of pear brandy. Yes, it cost $20, and do you know what? I’d order it again.

A running list of everywhere I’ve been, weeks 33 and 34: 335. Hamilton’s 336. Michael’s of Brooklyn 337. QC NY Spa 338. Hanco’s 339. Daigo 340. Hart’s 341. Walter’s 342. Karasu 343. Hand Pull Noodle and Dumpling House

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