The Ultimate New York Cocktail Crawl to Cheer the End of Lockdown

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(Bloomberg) -- At the moment, all of our plans are on hold. But that doesn’t mean we here at Bloomberg Pursuits aren’t planning the experiences we’ll rush out to enjoy when it’s safe to do so. We’re sharing our ideas with you in the hopes that they will help inspire you—and we’d love to hear what you are daydreaming about, too. Send us your ideas at daydreams@bloomberg.net, and we’ll flesh some of them out for this column.

Mark Ellwood has an itch no “quarantini” can scratch: an expertly made cocktail in dens dedicated to the craft, but especially the socializing that comes with it. So while some of these spots are offering takeaway now, when lockdown lifts, sidle up to the bar and join him for a chat. (He has a charming British accent.)

I’ve seen the boastful postings. Smug friends who are choosing to live soberly during lockdown, focusing on self-improvement in seclusion.

Not me.

Sure, I have the professional fig leaf of writing about booze for a living, but making myself a nightly cocktail has been a ritual for the past few weeks. It’s a nod to one of the things I miss most about pre-lockdown life, so easily taken for granted: strolling into a bar, recognized by the bartender as a regular, and waiting on a stool as your favorite drink slides across the counter, unbidden. I can’t wait for the next time I drink a cocktail I haven’t made for myself.  And I’m going to circle Manhattan to do it.

The Ultimate New York Cocktail Crawl to Cheer the End of Lockdown

When I can, I’ll start at the Dead Rabbit. When it opened in the financial district, inauspiciously located next to a Subway on a nondescript old street, it seemed an odd decision. But the co-owners, both expatriate Irishmen, wanted to evoke old New York, particularly a time when Gaelic gangs—like those namesake Dead Rabbits—prowled the cobbled streets here. They kitted out the rickety building with finesse, creating a winning pastiche of classic drinking spots ranging over three floors, from the pubby tap room by the door to parlor-like cocktail dens upstairs, and stocked America’s largest collection of Irish whiskey. (They even make a mean bottle of their own.) For their efforts, the Dead Rabbit was named World’s Best Bar in 2016. The inside always feels dark, cozy, even wintry somehow. I won’t mind ducking in on a summer evening, though, for an Irish coffee—rich, creamy, with a jolt of caffeine, a perfect eye-opener in mid-evening.

The Ultimate New York Cocktail Crawl to Cheer the End of Lockdown

Next I’d head uptown to Dante. Although the neighborhood landmark has been open for takeout over the past few weeks, it will be different when you can again dine inside this Greenwich Village cafe. A century after it opened in 1915, new Aussie owners rebooted it into a cocktail den, which quickly picked up a fistful of awards (including the current World’s Best Bar title). It deserves the plaudits: The staff is warm, the drinks cold, and the food hot. The menu is a tribute to the Negroni, from a purist’s recipe to quirky riffs. My favorite is the tequila-powered Unlikely Negroni, spiked with a drop or two of chili oil.

Just before lockdown, the Dante team was about to début a satellite in the West Village, months in the making. I watched eagerly as a derelict restaurant was painstakingly refitted into what they promised would be a temple to the martini. I’d like consume a gin martini there, too—the current location made noise with an expertly pre-batched selection under its “Martini Hour” menu. I’m most intrigued by the one I’ve heard will come dosed with a little olive oil.

I wish I could next make a pit stop at Pegu Club, close by in SoHo. It was an early craft cocktail mecca in New York and was about to celebrate its 15th birthday this year. Many of the best bartenders in the city logged stints here early in their careers under the tutelage of owner Audrey Saunders, and the low-lit space—intended to ape a colonial-era British drinking den, hence the name—was a refuge from the chaos of shoppers outside. Saunders announced in April that she won’t reopen, even when it’s allowed, marking Pegu as the first craft cocktail bar to close for good because of the crisis. But since this is my daydream, I’ll be drinking one last soul-refreshing gin-and-citrus Pegu Club in their honor.

The Ultimate New York Cocktail Crawl to Cheer the End of Lockdown

I want to spend some time at Death & Co next, so to the East Village I go. It’s another of New York’s OG craft cocktail bars and, like Dead Rabbit, it’s more cozy than breezy. It’s been a rousing success, so much that it sold shares via an investing platform to expand. (Branches now exist in Denver and Los Angeles.) 

I’ve always thought that walking inside was like stepping into a cocktailing Aladdin’s Cave, with the backlit back bar a stark contrast to the all-black interior. The team here is renowned for painstaking attention to detail: I’ve sat at the bar and watched my friend Dave Kaplan, one of the owners, work a martini until it was just right, tweaking ice, glass, and ingredients until he finally was satisfied. I’d like one of those martinis, please; I know Dave is off looking after his newborn daughter, so I’ll be happy for any bartender there to serve me while he’s gone. 

The Ultimate New York Cocktail Crawl to Cheer the End of Lockdown

Midtown used to be a tough place to find a good drink. The choice would toggle among overpriced hotel bars, soulless sports bars, and ghastly faux-Irish pubs. But a few cocktail spots have popped up recently to make a detour further uptown worthwhile.

First among them, the Pool Lounge, which was carved out of a corner of the erstwhile Four Seasons restaurant when it was deeded to new operators three years ago. Last I heard it was under renovation, final outcome TBD, but the previous version sat on a dais in the Pool Room, like a trophy—for good reason, as these are drinks made as much to be gawped at as gulped. The Jalapeño, with a jaunty green chili perched on the edge of a martini glass, is as delicious as it is goofy.

Across town, Dear Irving on Hudson is my favorite almost-rooftop bar, high up in the nondescript Aliz Hotel Times Square on a grubby block. I’m never deterred, though: The views across the city are superb, especially at sundown. I want to pull up a stool to the bar that rims the floor-to-ceiling windows and survey the city in all its folly and grandeur. I love the drinks co-owner Meaghan Dorman dreams up here and at the original Dear Irving near Union Square. They’re inventive without being gimmicky. Give me a Scotch and amaro-powered Godfather Part 2, please.

The Ultimate New York Cocktail Crawl to Cheer the End of Lockdown

The Polynesian is in an odd location, too—this time, a couple of blocks north in the budget Pod Hotel on a windswept corner of 42nd Street. This makes its achievement even more impressive: Kitschy without tipping into parody, it’s an homage to the tiki bars of the 1960s such as Trader Vic’s, which offered cartoonish riffs on the culture of the Pacific islands. There’s retro food, such as pu pu platters, but I’d rather save room for the drinks, most of which come in outlandish vessels. Think faux fish tanks or carved Easter Island-like heads, plus sharing drinks (I know, I know) wreathed in dry ice that smokes as you slurp them. I’m a purist, though: Bring me a mai tai and I’m happy. Spike it with some blue curaçao, maybe, just for kicks.

It was a blue drink that helped establish Porchlight as a destination five years ago, the first stand-alone cocktail joint from Danny Meyer. It needed the attention, despite Meyer’s connections, as the bar sits in an old building in the far west of Chelsea, with few nearby draws. Gun Metal Blue, a day-glow take on a margarita, became its signature drink—shorthand for the bar on Instagram. I’m a longtime fan of anything colorful and delicious, so I’d like another one here, please.

The Ultimate New York Cocktail Crawl to Cheer the End of Lockdown

If there’s time—by that, I mean if I’m still walking—I’ll head south to return to Greenwich Village to squeeze in two newer spots: Katana Kitten and Existing Conditions, a little further east. The wacky list at the latter is a mad scientist-style romp that uses molecular techniques and unexpected flavors such as clarified limes, fat-washed spirits, and the like. I love the vending machines most of all: They dispense pre-mixed bottled drinks to anyone too thirsty and impatient to wait for the bartender’s attention.

With his bushy moustache and wide grin, Masa Urushido is the genial mastermind behind Katana Kitten. He uses his Japanese heritage as a basis for some of the drinks, although this place has none of the hushed formality of martini bars in Tokyo. I want the melon-lime soda, which helped me overcome my aversion to Midori in a single sip.

If only he could help out with my morning after. Still, it’s a fate I’d gladly suffer if I could set foot right now in just one of these bars for a few hours.

It’s one thing to dream about these bars. It’s another thing to work in them—and have your livelihood stripped away. I’m putting my cocktail budget towards seeing the staff through these tough times. Cheers if you’re also able to help. You can opt to donate to industry relief programs, with dollar matching from the likes of Bacardi, or pick a particular bar to support. Many, like Death & Co, for example, have set up staff relief funds.

Have a daydream of your own? Let us know, and it may feature in a future column. 

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