04 Jul Bar Guide New York Part 2
While there is only one New York, this is already the second and final edition of Sneakerzimmer’s bar guide to share our personal insights into NYC’s best bars and bartenders. Watching the Covid-19 drama unfold, the last weeks were extremely painful. We can only hope for better times. Our minds and hearts belong to all the great people of NYC, the doctors and nurses, the hard-working employees in the hospitality industry, who might have lost their jobs, and especially to our friends Emily and Hamid. Let’s focus on the light at the end of the tunnel! In the meantime a drink and our guide might help to shorten the wait.
Hey, you’re the comeback kid
See me look away
I’m the runaway
I’m the stay out late
– Sharon Van Etten, Comeback Kid
Crown Shy (Financial District)
Yes this is a bar in a restaurant – or more precisely – a very good bar in a very good restaurant. Last year’s opening of Jeff Katz’s and chef James Kent’s fine dining temple Crown Shy on Pine Street certainly ranked among New York’s hottest new restaurants. We are totally in love with Crown Shy’s unique combination of exquisite food in a truly remarkable setting. But the elegant Art Décoarchitecture is not only home to a memorable dining experience (please see our latest NYC food guide for more details), the ambitious bar program curated by head bartender Harrison Ginsberg – formerly The Dead Rabbit – also puts Crown Shy among NYC’s top spots for cocktail lovers. Harrison pointed out that classic cocktails are usually quite strong in NYC. But as more and more people tend to low-ABV drinks (ABV stands for “alcoholic strength by volume”) they decided to reduce the alcoholic content of their own creations – also with regard to the flavorful food that should not be dominated by a excessively stiff beverage pairing. Their highball section called “Crowns” mixes different popular spirits like vodka, pisco or gin with fruity or other seasonal ingredients to create a crisp and refreshing long drink. All “Crowns” like the pictured “Vodka Crown” with tarragon and cucumber are served in a picturesque glassware matching the distinctive Art Déco style of the place. The other drinks from Crown Shy’s sophisticated bar menu are divided into a “Stirred & Bold” and a “Shaken & Fresh” section. The Tequila-based “Radicle” uses habanero chili to create a mild heat that goes astonishingly well with the flavors of raspberry and rhubarb. We also don’t want to forget the non-alcoholic choices. It doesn’t matter if you just come by for a drink at the bar or for the full dinner experience (highly recommended) — in either case Crown Shy is more than a safe bet!
Subject (Lower East Side)
How do you find the best bars in a big city like New York? Ask the professionals! No we aren‘ttalking about ourselves, we just soak up all recommendations from bartenders and industry insiders who we meet during our trips and squeeze them into a handy guide. It’s easy to miss a nondescript spot like Subject even if you think that you know a lot about the Lower East Side. But with a little help from Sean Saunders of Devon (check out our first NYC bar guide) we were thankfully pointed in the right direction. Subject could be the prototype of a low-key neighborhood joint. It’s unpretentious, cozy, honest and always available. At least this place is open every day of the year until 4 AM. Even for New York this seems more than rare and it might explain why Subject is a favorite among bartenders. In the back a big screen shows cult movies mostly from the 90’s and 2000’s adding to the homely living room feeling. Here you simply grab a seat at the bar and start a chat with the bartender. Perhaps you will catch Brian Grummart on his shift. We can assure you that you will be in good hands (that’s quite an understatement). Brian may recommend you one of their house cocktails like the extremely delicious “Thyme lasts forever”. The combination of gin, thyme liqueur – hence the name – kiwi and fresh lemon makes for a surprisingly well-balanced drink. If somebody started a petition for more kiwi cocktails, count us in! At Subject there’s no false affectation, no showing off, no fake hospitality. While the crowd on a Friday or Saturday night can sometimes get a little too jolly, Subject still manages to keep its self-proclaimed “Welcome Home” vibes. Those are even more present on weekdays.
The Long Island Bar (Cobble Hill)
It’s not easy to blend the old with the new, the past with the present, but despite all the obstacles that could arise from such an endeavor, some places hit all the right notes. Let’s introduce The Long Island Bar on Cobble Hill’s Atlantic Avenue as a blueprint for this tricky concept. In business since 1951 and under a new ownership since 2013, this iconic place embodies New York’s cocktail culture without any gimmicks or a fake attitude. Toby Cecchini and his business partner Joel Tompkins had a clear vision when they took over the bar seven years ago: On the one hand honoring The Long Island Bar’s rich history and that of the surrounding neighborhood – Cobble Hill was once a popular destination for sailors with endless bars, brothels and diners – on the other hand nothing short of establishing the perfect neighborhood bar. From over perspective, Toby and Joel definitely achieved both goals with their concept of a revitalized classic bar program. The illuminated neon signs on the façade will guide you directly to a place where knowledgeable bartenders serve great, timeless drinks like an Old Fashioned, a Boulevardier or a Gimlet. As Toby told us, he will never remove eitherof those classics from the menu. In the end, all of them are irreplaceable parts of the bar’s DNA. You can almost feel the so-called “good old times” in every detail of the interior. From the walls and their real patina to the cozy booths, all the small pieces fit together creating a highly authentic journey through time and bar history. And even though this is a bar guide, we have to mention their famous burger. You get the deal right?
Sweet Afton (Astoria)
A New York bar guide wouldn‘t be complete without all the great neighborhood joints from all across this big and beautiful city. As already pointed out in our latest food guide, we highly encourage you to explore the places off the beaten track. Go to the different neighborhoods and ask the locals about their favorite places! We’re pretty sure that if you go to Astoria – which is easily accessible by the N- and W-trains – many will tell you to check out Sweet Afton on 34th Street. This place just celebrated its “10 sweet years” in business. Apparently these guys must do something damn right! Owned by the same people as The Bonnie bar (feel free to check our food guide) Sweet Afton fortunately sticks to the same friendly neighborhood vibes. It’s also a hybrid between a laid-back bar and a casual restaurant very similar to the above-mentioned The Bonnie. Besides cocktails you can also choose between many different craft beers from local breweries and a mouth-watering food menu including their famous “Sweet Afton Burger”. For their 10-year-anniversary the bar’s interior got a complete redesign by Wes Anderson’s set decorator Kris Moran. The results of his work are present all over the place (we won’t spoil the fun). Sweet Afton’s bar director Cory Miller runs an eclectic bar program with some seasonal inspiration and many dearly-beloved classics. During our visit we found drinks like a “Winter Sangria” or the Whiskey-based “Sweater Weather” on the menu. The pictured “She’s the One” made with hibiscus-infused vodka and pisco is a crowd-pleaser, Cory told us. Get one and you will know why! Sweet Afton is not only worth a trip to Astoria, it’s also worth making a return.
Bar Pisellino (West Village)
The place for “La dolce vita” in NYC is obviously not the tourist trap called Little Italy. Instead you can experience authentic Italian vibes in a relatively small area located between the West Village and Washington Square Park. While we already picked the one-of-a-kind Dante for our first NYC bar guide, there’s by now another charming café/aperitivo bar in that area. Just a stone’s throw away from Christopher Park with the famous Stonewall monument, Bar Pisellino awaits all aficionados of Italian deliciousness. The instant success of that quite recently opened corner spot comes as no surprise. The co-owners Rita Sodi and Jody Williams were already making big waves as two award-winning chefs with their restaurants “I Sodi”, “Buvette” and “Via Carota” (all located in the West Village). Bar Pisellino is their take on a classic Italian bar. Open from early mornings serving espresso and other coffee specialties to late evenings offering different wines, aperitivi and classic cocktails this place seems always busy but never in a rush. When the weather is good, people line up on the sidewalk with Bar Pisellino’s aperitivo drinks and small bites (don’t blame us for getting hooked on the panini and bombolini). But not only their food is a celebration of the real Italy, the same can be said about Bar Pisellino’s cocktails – most of them using vermouth or amari – overseen by Ex-Dante bartender Stacey Swenson. Hence there are not many bars in NYC where you will find a better Martini – smooth, rich, highly satisfying. But of course all drinks that the bar teamwill send over Pisellino’s beautiful curved marble counter match the highest standards in mixology. Even Italians will agree.
Attaboy (Lower East Side)
Some people need no introduction. Everyone who is familiar with NYC’s history of craft cocktails will stumble across the names of Michael McIlroy and Sam Ross sooner or later. These two guys are living legends, both having worked with Sasha Petraske at Milk & Honey back in the day. After this cathedral of modern drinking closed its doors, Michael and Sam took over the old Milk & Honey space on Eldridge Street. It was the hour of birth for their own “baby” Attaboy that promptly became their next success story. As a guest you immediately sense you are in for an extraordinary cocktail experience. First of all there, is no menu. Instead, Attaboy’s experienced bartenders will involve you in a little Q&A sessiontrying to figure out your personal taste when it comes to cocktails. As this might sound a little intimidating especially for cocktail newbies, let’s make clear that this in fact not the case. Everyone is welcome at Attaboy, just be prepared to wait in line for one of the few seats in this really tiny, intimate space that gets quite busy every night – 7 days a week. If you can manage it, come here early on a weekday or put your name on the waiting list. They operate on a first come, first served policy and therefore don’t take reservations. In our opinion Attaboy’s superb drinks and their unique approach to hospitality are worth almost every wait. We met Michael on a sunny afternoon at Attaboy. In daylight the bar looks completely different. When night falls, Attaboy’s speakeasy vibes take over the venue, transforming it into a truly magical, low-lit spot with reams of small candles and first-rate spirits. Make sure to also check out Michael’s and Sam’s new casual hangout Diamond Reef in Brooklyn. It might be as popular as Attaboy some day.
Nitecap (Lower East Side)
Only a few places sweep us off our feet. This marvelous kitschy bar tucked away in a basement on the Lower East Side that recently celebrated its 6th anniversary definitely falls in this category. Nitecap is at the same time a playful neighborhood joint and a “serious” bar with an ambitious cocktail program. Don’t let the colorful, highly imaginative menu fool you! Every edition comes up with new surprises and inventive drinks. Starting with aperitifs, continuing with more boozy drinks (hence the name “firewater”) and some so called “gulpable thirst quenchers” and a final selection of “nitecaps” their craft cocktails will probably please all kinds of barflies. But Nitecap’s owner Natasha David – formerly of Williamsburg’s well-known oyster bar “Maison Premiere” – understands that people are not only thirsty for a good drink. Therefore the crew at Nitecap places the same emphasis on the overall experience, which includes an “everyone is welcome” mindset and a quirky atmosphere. Obviously this intimate, LGBTQ-friendly bar doesn’t take itself too seriously – another great plus. With all the blinking lights and the intentionally trashy décor Nitecap has established its own style. Guests, who are called “nitecappers”, can experience chilled vibes during the week and a party attitude at the weekends. The cozy interior as well as the signature drinks by head bartender Ari Daskauskas share the same attention to detail. While there are unfortunately too many pretenders out there, it’s good to know the real ones.After six years in business Nitecap has earned its status as one of NYC’s best neighborhood bars. We always leave this bar with a smile and the craving to coming back.
Black Emperor Bar (East Village)
The ever-changing East Village is home to an endless number of bars, restaurants, clubs and cafés. It’s probably one of the toughest places to successfully run a bar in the long term. Having this in mindyou have to give kudos to award-winning bartender Ben Rojo, whose name was previously associated with the legendary East Village speakeasy Angel’s Share (go there, have a drink or two and send some greetings to barchef Takuma from us). Now Ben is managing partner of a relatively new Japanese-style place on 2nd Avenue. It’s called Black Emperor Bar. This cozy joint has an authentic dive feel to it, playing with East Asian influences and a charming neighborhood vibe. You can watch old Japanese black-and-white-movies while sipping a cold beer, a traditional sake or one of their house cocktails. The refreshing “Toki Highball” made with Japanese whiskey of the same name (it’s a mild blend of different Suntory whiskeys) is always a safe and highly satisfying choice. For a hot summer night we recommend the “Deer Hunter”, a frozen slushy-style drink with tequila. The unpretentious drinks are a reflection of the fun we had. It’s almost unthinkable not to enjoy your time here. Ben’s dive-like bar is also well-known for its diversified food pop-ups with some really great restaurants from all over the Village. Just recently they teamed up with the guys from celebrated wine bar Ruffian and Kindred, two critic’s darlings in that area. Serving mouth-watering bar food like burgers and chicken wings with an Asian twist their combo of drinks and food comes close to the perfect culinary match. We can only give you one advice: Hang out at the bar, soak up the atmosphere and experience East Village’s hospitality.
Mister Paradise (East Village)
From Black Emperor you can get to our next destination Mister Paradise within walking distance. And even though both bars are only separated by some blocks, each one represents a different world of mixology. Based on a highly playful take on a modern and accessible cocktail bar – you might consider it their common ground – they went in completely different directions. While Black Emperor is more of a dive spot with fun drinks and excellent food pop-ups, Mister Paradise feels more fancy and elaborated. We love ´em both! Mister Paradise adds an upscale vibe to East Village’s cocktail culture. At the same time those guys manage to incorporate the authenticity of the neighborhood into their truly unique concept. But wait! Who are “those guys”? It turns out that Mister Paradise is run by some very familiar names. Barchef and co-founder Will Wyatt once worked at world famous NoMad bar. His business partner Eric Kruvant is associated with another East Village spot called Drexler’s. At Mister Paradise they successfully combine an ámbitious bar program with a very casual attitude (patrons are welcomed by the slogan “probably the best cocktails”). Irony is part of that game. The place itself looks beautiful as every piece of the puzzle falls in place. From the Art Déco styled bar to the inviting big leather booths and the more than slightly odd images Will and Eric know how to create something new and modern. There is a very special private back room adorned in screaming red with a boxing kangaroo pic on the wall that teleports you into a different dimension. All the cocktails we had kept up with the sophisticated interior. The “Party Lobster” became their hot seller. Made with tequila, mezcal, Campari, watermelon, fermented habanero (!), lime and garlic it will definitely surprise you. As a cocktail lover make sure to add Mister Paradise to your friends list!
The Raines Law Room (Chelsea)
We are suckers for great speakeasies that handle things not only as cheap gimmicks. Either you approach such a concept with seriousness and an eye for every detail or you better stop thinking about running a speakeasy joint altogether. But don’t worry! We will guide you to the right places. This is definitely one of them. Upon entering The Raines Law Room flagship in Chelsea (there’s a second location at The William hotel) you will be teleported into another dimension. Leaving NYC’s bustle and hustle at the doorstep this place puts all emphasis on the perfect ambience for real cocktail connoisseurs. It’s the elegant, fancy version of the twilight zone. Established over 10 years ago it became a blueprint for successful speakeasies. Bar director Meaghan Dorman, who once studied at legendary Milk & Honey, joined forces with a team of experienced restaurateurs to create an almost timeless speakeasy. While this idea seemed quite new back in 2009, many copycats with a similar strategy have emerged over the years. The Raines Law Room’s recipe of success relies on the overall experience. It’s the combination of a deliberate venue with a lounge-like layout, a classy environment and an excellent cocktail menu with seasonal entries and time-honored classics. Technically, there is no bar to hang out. Instead you will be seated on plush leather sofas separated by airy curtains. The dimly lit space feels intimate and elegant. It looks completely unremarkable from the street level – hence true speakeasy style. The beautiful interior matches Meaghan’s cocktails that are partly inspired by the seasons, by classic drinks like the Manhattan (that section is called “New York State of Mind”) or are simply spirit-forward (“Stirred & Strong”). And don’t forget the “What we’re drinking” section with the staff favorites. As this place has become so popular, we highly recommend to show up early – especially on a busy Friday and Saturday night. Don’t be afraid to wait, The Raines Law Room is worth it.
Amor y Amargo (East Village)
More and more bars find their own small niche. But in order to thrive and prosper it takes some guts and courage at the beginning. Without any doubt Sother Teague – one of New York’s most charismatic figures within the bar industry, a bartender/author/podcaster/brand ambassador – is a man on a mission. He loves bitters and bitter-based drinks. Therefore he opened Amor y Amargo back in 2011 as a hideaway for all bitter connoisseurs. Located next to the utterly famous Death & Co. Sother’s tiny bar welcomes you with open arms. The limited space seats only about 10 to 12 guests with some additional standing room. Just recently, a spin-off opened in Williamsburg that follows in Amor y Amargo’s footsteps. While we still have to check out this new venue, we’re pretty sure that Sother will ensure the same high standards for his Williamsburg patrons. With all the different amaro brands from around the world impressively lined up on the shelves we recommend a tasting especially for those who might not be so familiar with the more complex flavors. Sother and his team love to share their passion and wisdom with every guest looking for some education. There are no juices or other sweet fillers on the menu. Instead you are encouraged to start with the lighter, more easy-drinking cocktails and finish with the stronger ones like their very own “8 Amaro Sazerac”. The “Sharpie Moustache” is not only an Instagram darling (thanks to the presentation) but also a perfect example of Amor y Amargo’s straight-forward philosophy. Accurately described as a “bitters tasting room” Sother’s vision goes way beyond the traditional cocktail bar. He’s the best teacher we can think of!
In case you’re still thirsty at this point, make sure to also check out part 1 with more of our favorite neighborhood bars and speakeasies. Meet the great men and women who define New York’s cocktail culture today.