My final cocktail list of the year is about the little things that came up short. Mercifully, most of the items on this list have a happy upside. And before I get into how bad service can be in New York City, I must say that overall, I get great drinks by very friendly, knowledgable people here. Miami? Not so lucky.
1. Tailor closed before I could get there and taste the smoked Coca-Cola cocktail. Imagine my disappointment when I realized that Tailor, where mixology master Eben Freeman tended bar, was closed. I had just been reading about his Waylon cocktail: Coca-Cola syrup smoked with cherrywood, in-house, and then run through a soda gun and mixed with bourbon. I went to the Tailor website, which is still going strong, found the address, went there, and then…it wasn’t there. Now imagine my joy when I realized Julie Reiner’s Lani Kai had opened up in its place (aaaah, that’s right, I did read about that).
2. The bacon-infused bourbon at PDT just wasn’t that great. I’d been hearing about this for years, and I was excited about it. Once the bacon infusion code was cracked (fat-washing!), lots of bars were trying it. PDT, the small, secretive cocktail bar inside a hot dog joint in the East Village, may be the birthplace of the bacon booze: bartender Don Lee’s tips and recipes for the home bartender abound online, as seen below in a video by New York Magazine. The problem is that it just wasn’t that good. Did it need salt? Was it not smoky enough? Whatever it was, it just didn’t live up to the hype for me when I ordered it in a cocktail at PDT last summer.
3. Every bar I went to in Miami was really bad. This surprised me. I had this vision of South Beach as an upscale art deco heaven, full of sleek bars with brilliant summer cocktails all year long, but I never found that. Instead, one bar boasted giant-sized fruity nightmares for $25 a piece. The “manager” (so he said, but we weren’t sure he worked there) promised us half-off drinks. We left immediately. Another place on the beach had throbbing music that spilled over onto the street with shirtless muscleheads fist-pumping as a homeless guy did a sexually suggestive little dance. Off the beach, we tried a quieter art deco hotel. The margarita I ordered there was remarkably, comically bad–the worst single cocktail I’ve ever ordered. It was watery, with a splash of off-brand rail tequila and a bit of lime juice that tasted like the hand that squeezed it. Ah, Miami.
4. The Prohibition Bar at the W Hotel in Minneapolis: Bad drinks for big city prices in a mid-sized town. When W Hotels opened up a branch in Minneapolis, in the historic (1929) Foshay Tower, a lot of locals were doubly pleased: the city now had a fancy new world-class hotel, and it preserved an iconic downtown skyscraper. And when I discovered that there was a prohibition-themed cocktail bar (called Prohibition) on the 27th floor, I was ecstatic.
So I get off the elevator, walk up to the bar, and ask a tall, baby-faced young man for a sazerac. “Um,” he says, nonplussed. “What’s that?” Jesus Christ. That was a couple years ago, and despite the slow-witted man-children who pass for bartenders there, I couldn’t help bringing my girlfriend up to the 27th floor late last December. After all, the view is amazing and the 27th floor is beautifully panelled in dark woods with comfortable club chairs and little interior balconies.
Well, not much had changed in a couple of years. The cocktails were all fruity martini variations that might be aimed at suburban fans of Sex in the City and the prices were typical…for luxury hotels in New York.
If you’re in Minneapolis and you need a hotel bar with fancy cocktails, try the nearby Hotel Ivy, run by the same luxury hotel conglomerate (Starwood). The last time I was there, the smart, friendly bartender said that she not only knew how to make a sazerac, she had her own twist on it on the menu. Or try the Bradstreet Crafthouse in the Graves 601 Hotel, which takes classic cocktails very seriously.
5. Bad service in NYC. Where do I begin? Try walking into a New York restaurant at about 5 or 6pm any day of the week, one with empty tables but people at every barstool, and ask the host if you can come in for drinks. The host will invariably sneer that the bar is full, and that the tables are for food, and then pressure you to order food. If you don’t want food, you can’t come in. Nevermind the fact that people who drink in the early evening often end up ordering food after a few drinks anyway. Or that margins are better on drinks than they are on food. I’ve had this happen at many establishments, including Dos Caminos on West Houston (twice; I didn’t learn the first time), Macondo on East Houston, and La Bottega in the Maritime Hotel–to name just a few.
Also, in the no-service category: PDT. (I know I just talked trash about their bacon bourbon, but they can take it; it’s an amazing bar with a freakishly good list of their own cocktails.) The first time I went to PDT, it was a Saturday, at about 7pm. The procedure is novel, but it can be a little too cute if you’re not patient: you walk into the phone booth inside Crif Dogs, a small hot dog place, and lift up the phone. You’ll be asked if you have a reservation. If not, you may try to book one then and there. In our case, I gave the hostess my cell phone number and she called me in 30 minutes when three stools at the bar opened up. It would be the first and last time I got into PDT. The next attempt, last Friday, failed uttlery. PDT takes same-day reservations only, and the phone line opens at 3pm. After hitting redial 106 times (and asking my grilfriend and a co-worker to do the same), I reached a chipper hostess who turned surly when I asked if there were any openings that night. They were fully booked for the evening within 34 minutes. Must be nice being that popular.
The worst service of the year in a bar that I actually got into was without a doubt at Decibel, the otherwise excellent sake bar on East 9th Street near 2nd Avenue in the Village. Our server, a young woman, literally refused to come back to our table. She walked by, she nodded her head when we asked for the check, and she even mumbled an apology when she overheard one of us remarking on how bad the service was. We never did figure out why she wouldn’t bring us the check.