Whether you’re sipping on a custom cocktail in New York’s finest mixology bar or relaxing with beers at your nightly hangout around the corner, the dim lights of the establishment are sure to eschew your eye to what’s hiding behind the curtain—or in this case, behind the bar. The woman who served up the fancy drink you’re enjoying or the man who pours your favorite pint every night, or whoever’s doling out your alcoholic pleasures, is sure to have a story of their own. And as the renaissance of the bartender only becomes more prevalent, the more we find ourselves asking: just who are these people that float in and out of our nights?
Last fall, Steven Abt and partner Moiz Ali launched Caskers.com, a website that sells small-batch spirits like whiskey, gin, and vodka by featuring one a day–along with the history behind it. "The idea is to understand what you’re buying, so if you’re having a party you can tell the story of the distiller," Abt explains. "That reflects on you, and makes you look cool." We chatted with Abt to get the lowdown on the company’s unique business model and find out where he likes to go to research new product offerings. Take a look.
What’s your background?
I’m a former lawyer, and like most lawyers I enjoyed a drink from time to time. I’ve always been fascinated with craft products generally, and spirits specifically. Traveling around the country, I noticed that there are some products that are really good that you can’t get in California, only in New York, and there are certain products that you can’t get in New York, only in California. That’s an issue with the distribution network with spirits, and the fact these small craft brands don’t have much of a marketing budget. So I had this idea, along with Moiz, to figure out a way to spread the word about the better products we had tasted. The spirits we feature each have a story to tell, and we do that by telling the story of the master distiller. The idea hatched for a way to let people get to them.
How did the company come together as an invitation-only website?
You walk into a liquor store, and even if it’s a good liquor store, they have a ton of products. If you don’t know what you want, if you haven’t heard of something, it’s hard to discover a new product. We didn’t just want to be a site that has every craft liquor under the sun. With that, you’ve solved the availability problem but you haven’t solved the discovery problem because you’re overwhelming people with choice. We send out a daily email, and we have products that are featured for about two weeks. We give you a little hint of the story in the email, and you can click on it and read more, but that way it’s not taking too much of your time. If we put up 100 products it would take hours to go through. But one per day is a bit more manageable, and you can actually understand what you’re buying.
What are your most popular spirits?
Bourbon is the most popular. We’ve had a couple of vodkas that have done extremely well, and gin. There are people who are making sipping vodkas now. We taste everything before we put it up. When I’m drinking for fun, it’s usually rye whiskey. We’ve got one now called Catoctin Creek from Virginia that’s really good. I’m originally from Philadelphia, and there’s a burgeoning craft spirit industry in Pennsylvania. Out in Pittsburgh they make Boyd & Blair vodka, which has been named best vodka in the world twice. It’s our best selling vodka.
How often are new spirits added?
One spirit a day on weekdays, which is available for two weeks. We work with fulfillers around the country. We don’t take inventory, which helps us with startup costs. It’s a free membership, and you can purchase as much as you like.
Why are you guys the first to take advantage of this business model for spirits?
The regulatory maze we have to navigate scared a lot of people off. That’s where my three years of law school come in. We work within the traditional three-tier system, so all of our products go through distributors, with rare exceptions. In New York, distillers are allowed to sell directly to retailers, but that’s pretty much it.
Why do you like working with craft distillers so much?
These are people who quit their jobs to do what they love. It’s their passion, and they’re extremely proud of what they do. We’ve gotten so many emails from customers saying "This is a fantastic product." We forward those emails to them and it makes their week. They love the exposure and, of course, they like selling their product.
Are spirits geeks your core customers?
The biggest core group is people with an intermediate knowledge of spirits. And then there’s they hipster type and the local organic lover who wants all his products to be handmade and locally sourced. And all of our products are like that.
What bars do you like to visit for tasting spirits?
My favorite place in New York for trying new things is Rye House on 17th Street. They have a ton of rye and pretty much everything else. It’s a great bar with knowledgeable bartenders. And there’s Employees Only, of course. They make the best cocktails.
Into high-quality spirits? Then sign up for a Caskers account. Visit www.caskers.com/register and enter invitation code BLACKBOOK.
It’s great that after a few weeks, two holidays, and another on the way, people are still recognizing the disaster that Hurricane Sandy caused in various parts of the city. In the next nine days there are four fun events aimed at raising money for victims, displaced families, and devastated businesses. Here are some ways you can give more to the relief efforts, and drink your face off at the same time.
Tonight, hit up the Bowery Hotel for the 1st Annual New York Bartenders Ball featuring live music by Chances With Wolves and cocktails made by drink mavericks from Death & Co, Employees Only, PDT, Ward III, Dutch Kills, Dram, The Whiskey Brooklyn, and Weather Up Tribeca. Starting at 7pm, $100 gets you in for a five-hour open bar with food, and every penny goes to Occupy Sandy NYC Relief and the Soaring Spirits Loss Foundation.
Also tonight, the $10 donation at the door of NYC Heart’s NYC event at The Tippler will be donated to victims of the hurricane. While you feel good about giving back, you can also feel good about shaking your tail to Diane Birch and Maverick & Ice, and then, participating in the live auction hosted by Brian McCarthy. The party runs from 6pm to 2am, and they will serve $10 cocktails and nibbles all night long.
The Barman’s Fund is at it again, but this time they are inviting you to party down at Dutch Kills on Sunday, December 2 at 9pm until 2am. Join them for the 2nd Annual Barman’s Fund Holiday Shindig, where for $50 you can feast on food by #7 Sub and The Vanderbilt, sip cocktails made with Brooklyn Gin, Tito’s Vodka, Owney’s Rum, and others, all mad by barman Richard Boccato. All proceeds go to various NYC charities.
Next Tuesday, December 4, The Brooklyn Brewery hosts a Hurricane Sandy relief fundraiser for Rockaway Surf Club, Red Hook Initiative, and Coney Recovers. Tickets run $40 and include a commemorative tasting glass, unlimited samples of beer from breweries including Blue Point, Kelso, Dogfish Head, Empire, Founders, and more. With all these incentives, giving has never felt so good.
Photo by Caspar Newbolt
Saturday may have rocked Cinco de Mayo and Derby Day, but for true culinary connoisseurs, Sunday was the night to party. The start of the evening featured a killer set by DJ ?uestlove, who is teaming up with Chicago-based chef Graham Elliot to pair food and music together. The two met at Lollapalooza in 2010 when Elliot acted as the culinary ambassador for the festival and something clicked, creating a match made in pop culture heaven. Last night they showed their partnership under a large yellow moon at the penthouse suite of the Mondrian Hotel in Soho. While ?uestlove served the beats, black-clad waiters passed out delicate truffle deviled eggs, fried mac ‘n’cheese on a stick, and hefty fried “Love’s Drumsticks”—all a sneak peek into what the team plans on doing in the future.
To drink they offered cocktails including the NY State of Mind, a mixture of gin, sparkling wine, and Ty Ku sake, and the Brazilian ‘”Roots,” which had Lebion Cachaca, cane sugar, and lime. Sipping drinks and taking in the killer view were Park and Recreations actor Aziz Ansari, Onion writer Bartunde Thurston, and Top Chef contestant Carla Hall. Like Hall, Elliot was also on Top Chef as well as Iron Chef America, and he has been nominated for three James Beard Awards.
Speaking of the James Beard Awards, last night also kicked off the 2012 JBA with Chef’s Night Out, an annual event celebrating the nominees. Campari helped sponsor the event at the Chelsea Market, and there were top bartenders like Dushan Zaric from Employees Only mixing up the Bouleuardier, a stiff drink akin to a bourbon negroni, and Damon Dyer from Rum House doing a fresh Campari with Fever Tree soda water. Jane Danger who runs the darling Jane’s Sweet Buns created devious shortbread with the sprit, which was also topped with rhubarb bitters cream. In the main hall, revelers indulged in melt-in-your-mouth Iberico ham served by Forever Cheese, whipped lardo from Dickson’s Farmstead Meats, tangy mac ‘n’ cheese by The Green Table, and dense chocolate brownies made by Fat Witch Bakery.
Some of the chefs, restaurateurs, and TV personalities enjoying the night included: Curtis Stone of the new Bravo show Around the World in 80 Plates, Ted Allen from Chopped, world renowned chef and restaurateur Thomas Keller, Tony and Marisa May of SD26, pastry chef Pichet Ong, John Besh, chef Madison Cowan from BBC’s No Kitchen Required, Daniel Holzman from The Meatball Shop, Salumeria Rosi’s Cesare Casella, and southern chef Hugh Acheson—plus a whole lot more. Tonight many of these people will be waiting for hours at the James Beard Awards and this was the calm before the storm of tonight’s parties and prestigious honors.
The holiday season means higher-than-usual tourist density in New York City, and naturally, that spike in traffic is due in no small part to your own eager friends and family, who descend on the city for an authentic, fairy-lighted experience of the Big Apple in winter. But after a day at Macy’s, an evening at Rockefeller Center, and a dinner somewhere “New York-y,” as per their request, where do you, their trusty tour guide by default, take them for a night on the town? Here are a few crowd-pleasers that will still earn you some street cred, whether that crowd involves your boyfriend’s distant Uncle Larry, Mom and Dad, long-lost friends who’ve emerged from the woodwork, hard-to-impress rubberneckers, or your old high school mates. A comprehensive list of the best yuletide boîtes to celebrate the new year – and the best of NYC.
Bars with Games Good For: Who doesn’t like to indulge in the nostalgia of old-school games, especially this time of year? Whether you’re with a raucous bunch of old friends, have a score to settle with your Mom over ping pong, or need to take the focus off a conversation with relatives you barely know, these bars offer distractions and can make for a festive time. Bar 675: Basement rec room goes for casual chic with Jenga, cards, and board games. Earn extra points from sceney friends, who will be thrilled to tell the folks back home that they hung out in the Meatpacking. The Diamond: Brooklyn bound? Beer makes shuffleboard so much more fun at this Greenpoint joint. SPiN: Table tennis for mom, and the fact that it’s owned by Susan Sarandon will appease cousin Name Drop as well. Barcade: Are your friends from the Midwest looking for “authentic Brooklyn?” Watch their wide-eyed wonder as they take in skinny-jean gangs playing thumb-cramping faves like Frogger and Tetris for an authentic 25¢ a pop. Ace Bar: Skee-Ball bar pleases the kiddies and anyone else who likes bare-bones décor sprinkled with bits of pop-trinket nostalgia from your childhood. V Bar: Siding with the gaming snobs of the world, this spot is best for your Princeton-alum brother (who happens to be a chess genius). Café and wine bar stocked with NYU grad students, chess and Scrabble battles, and a nice selection of beer and wine.
Next: Cozy Fireplaces
Cozy Fireplaces Good For: Catch up time with people who came to really enjoy holiday spirit in the city. Rose Bar: Have friends or family more interested in being around artists than actual art? For example: I once took someone here who fawned over what he thought was a Warhol (he read about it in a city guide) loud enough so that he was sure Neve Campbell, seated a table away, could hear. It was a Haring. Rubber-necking friends aside, the velvety banquettes and giant fireplace are a cozy departure from the winter weather courtesy of Ian Schrager and Julian Schnabel. The Lobby Bar at the Bowery Hotel: Wood paneling, stuffed animal trophies, and twin oils of hunting hounds give off an English-manor-library vibe. Can be a headache to get a good spot, which are usually reserved for “hotel guests,” monied travelers, and pretty hipsters. Try eating at Gemma first and brown nose your server for a spot by the fireplace. The Back Room: Semi-secret spot for those wishing it was still Prohibition. They’ll get a kick out of drinking their $11 cocktail from a mug. Employees Only: High-class weirdness, with a gypsy psychic at the door and stellar mixologists to determine your fate. The smell of the fireplace and the sight of all the handle bar mustaches will really transport your visitors. Highlands: Décor is pub-meets-hunter’s-lodge, with stuffed deer on brick walls and salvaged woods. Cozy, and it exacerbates that whole “New York Melting Pot” idea. Savoy: A townhouse in the middle of Soho with a fireplace as the festive cherry on top. Shoolbred’s: Scottish pub parlor warmed by actual fireplace. Ten brews on tap. Scotch, natch. It’s Highlands for the East Side set, with a low key (NYU students) crowd.
Next: The Oldest Bars in New York
The Oldest Bars in New York Good For: Skip these precious spots if you’re with a crew that couldn’t care less about anywhere that doesn’t have a VIP list. Otherwise, impress friends and family with the storied, often quirky backgrounds of some of New York’s oldest watering holes. Bridge Café: Opened in 1794, old but not musty. Looks like the site of a nautical murder mystery and is rumored to be haunted by ghosts of sailors and whores, like your parents’ bedroom. Ear Inn: Classic New York-on-the-waterfront feel, minus Marlon Brando, but with plenty of coulda-been contenders. I’ve seen a Soprano in here. McSorley’s: Born in 1854, and perhaps the most renown bar amongst the younger members of the Historical Society, this beer-chugging joint sees tanked fratboys, the cirrhosis crowd, and, after a court order, a few ladies (in other words: no women were allowed until 1970). Sawdusted floors, dust-encrusted wishbones, and loads of cats make this a very special place, indeed. Delmonico’s: Quenching your bloodthirst since ’37 -1837, that is – your parents will appreciate the air of refinement this joint still exudes, not to mention the supposed hauntings. Mahogany wood dining room with glowing chandeliers is the ideal noir-glam setting for steakhouse staples and a bustling bar separate from the dining room.
Next: Mixology Bars
Mixology Bars Good For: The mixology trend is widely known across all towns and townships, so let your slightly underage cousin Timmy learn firsthand just how delightful muddling, zesting, and spicing can be. Just about anyone who doesn’t limit themselves to wine coolers will appreciate the craftsmanship and ambiance. Apotheke: For those who want the back alley as much as they want the absinthe, welcome to Albert Trumer’s quirky school of cocktail science – this former opium den has been transformed into a medieval apothecary by the Austrian mixologist. Bonus: it’s in Chinatown. The interior is antique-sexy, with warm lighting and super-friendly bartenders. PDT: Oh, this is good. Through a hot dog joint you’ll go, and then through a phone booth, where you’ll have to say some secret something-or-other (though they’ve grown lenient in their older age) before you take your dumbfounded guests back to a room with a diagonal slat ceiling, de rigueur taxidermy, and a glowing bar. Note: Make a reservation earlier to get a good seat and smooth entry. Little Branch: By far the most talked-about speakeasy, this West Village spot boasts no signage unless you count the line out the door during peak hours. Retro cocktails served with cool swizzle sticks by tall drinks of water. Go on the early side of a Sunday night to chat up the mixologists and catch some jazz. Mayahuel: The cocktail connoisseurs at Death & Co. built an agave altar. Intimate confessionals, stained glass, and communal pews evoke a Mexican mission. All tequila, all the time, with all the bells and whistles to render previous tequila blow-outs null and void. Death & Co: Dark and polished, this cocktail den packs in a lively crowd. Bartenders in suspenders and vests serve up expert cocktails, and clearly love what they do (they don’t take of their vests when they get home). Great spot for just about anyone who can appreciate such a scene. Cienfuegos: Cuban rum bar from Mayahuel/Death & Co vet seduces with pink couches and sugarcane.
Next: Impressive Hotel Bars
Impressive Hotel Bars Good For: If your guests really “wanna see stuff,” like mine usually do, guiding them to impressively-designed hotel bars around NYC—usually the crown jewels of the hotels themselves—will go over well. Here are a few that leave a lasting impression. Bemelmans Bar: It’s classic New Yawk! Located inside the Carlyle, this timeless upscale New York City bar near Central Park draws bold-faced names, many of whom your out-of-towners could care less about. They will enjoy the classic cocktails and gilded ambiance. Hudson Bar at Hudson Hotel: If your guests approach things like rock music, sushi, and democrats with trepidation, this bar on acid may not be the place for them. Shrek-green lights illuminate the escalator, there’s a chandelier the size of a Volkswagen, the floors glow, the chairs seem to float—except for the tree stumps—and the whole thing makes you feel like you’re living in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s that cool. The Waldorf Astoria: Ah, the sprawling impressiveness of the Waldorf – the stuff salads are named after! Three bars, four restaurants, and Jazz Age overindulgence. A certain spirit abides, especially during the holidays. Jane Hotel and Ballroom: This place is for your visiting sorority sisters – leave the parents at home. Dual bar spaces decked out with Edwardian charm, as befits the hotel’s 1908 origins. Posh couches, leafy palms, tortoise shell ceilings, and an ancient disco bar all made better by the creatively-dressed PYTs. Plunge Rooftop Bar + Lounge at the Gansevoort Park: This hotel bar sort of looks like the New York in the Sex and the City movies. It’s slick and arty, with shinning angles and scrumptious views of the Empire State Building. Stoke your vertigo with windows in the terrace floors that look straight down on distant midtown traffic. Your guests will feel so very modern. The Standard Hotel: So this is the place with all the naked people? Depending who you’re with, I’d say a stroll around the grounds with a stop at the bar in the hotel’s Standard Grill will be enough. Unless you’ve got some young model/socialite family members, why waste family time on rubbernecking at Boom Boom? The Ace Hotel: It has a curious cheeky quality to it without being a tourist magnet. The Lobby Bar is reminiscent of an all-American library, with Ivy League reading-room tables, a bar serving up Old Fashioneds and the cult favorite Porkslap Pale Ale, a vintage-style photobooth, and a massive, tattered American flag on the wall. Bring people—not sheeple.
Next: Editor’s Picks
Editor’s Picks Our editors are often tasked with selecting the perfect place for their cousin Sarah’s college roommate’s mother, who’s coming to the city for the first time. Here’s where they like to bring their special holiday guests this time of year. Chris Mohney: Pegu Club. Great place to take any out-of-towner who likes a good drink. Still some of the finest cocktails in the city, and now that it’s been around a while, almost always chill enough to easily find a spot without worrying about crowds. Ben Barna: Fatty Cue. It’s good for anyone, really. Except maybe vegetarians. It’s got the kind of vibe you can only find in Brooklyn, and the kind of unique cuisine you’ll only find in New York. Also, it’s a restaurant meant for sharing, so that’s fun. And the drinks are as good as the food. I’d like to just bring my bros, but it’s expensive, so I take my parents as well. Megan Conway: The Good Fork in Red Hook. I’d like to take my parents to visit this historic, less-trodden waterfront neighborhood. This cozy restaurant offers inspired grub in one of the more unique pockets of the city. Nadeska Alexis: The Dove. It’s a well rounded place that’s chill enough for friends, and I’ve been there with adults and have not been embarrassed. Fun cocktails too. Victor Ozols: Rudy’s. It’s a really lasting, authentic experience that stays with someone. Cayte Grieve: Oyster Bar at Grand Central. For New York newbies and friends and family who haven’t spent a lot of time in the city, the Oyster Bar is one of those bars-slash-attractions that sort of kills two birds with one stone. Grand Central? Check. Getting Grandma drunk? Check. All done with old-style glamour.
Next: Around Rockefeller
Around Rockefeller Good For: Sometimes you just gotta give the people what they want: A Disney-fied version of the most wonderfully commercial time of the year! While your skating, shopping, and taking photos around The Tree, you might as well ease your sensory-overloaded nerves with some family vodka time. Rock Center Café: Tourist magnet, priced accordingly, and you will wait accordingly—yes, even the early birds. Perhaps it’s best to skip the food and opt for a toast instead. Perfect before, during, or after a spin around the rink. Watching wipe-outs with the fam never felt so corporate. The Modern: Danny Meyer’s unabashed flamboyance for air-kissing culture whores. It’s at the MoMa, kids, so take only those who desire such a scene. If you’ve got yourself a crew outfitted in suits and ties longing for a culture cocktail, here’s your promised land. 21 Club: It’s so famous! Free parking if you show up before 6:30pm, if that tells you something about the demographic, but only the locals and culture snobs will take note. Skip the steaks and head for the scotch with the people who’ve read about the place or heard about it in hip-hop songs. Morrell Wine Bar & Cafe: Here’s a cozy place to get warm after running with the masses around Rockefeller. Please remember that other people longing for a night cap will also be directed to this wine bar, which boasts over fifty well-chosen wines by the glass and 2,000 bottle choices on the menu.
If you’ve been to the West 4th Street institution Extra Virgin, then you know Jean Rene Mbeng. He’s the animated maître d’ who will take your name, tell you it’s going to be a 45 minute wait (it’s always packed), and then keep you so entertained that you forget your stomach is growling. By the time you sit down, you’ll have made a new friend in Jean Rene and forgotten that you waited long at all. Chef Joey Fortunato and co-owner Michele Gaton have a prime piece of West Village real estate with the French-influenced eatery, and depend on Mbeng (who grew up in Lille, France, but originally hails from Gabon and Senegal) to keep the neighbors happy and the clientele returning, which he always does with a smile and a tip of his ever-present hat. More on this neighborhood character after the jump.
On the route to New York: I started an internship in San Francisco. In French schools, you have to go abroad for an internship. I lived there and I worked at Bissap Baobab. After that, San Francisco became too small for me because I have such a big personality so I had to move. I came to New York on vacation for two weeks like five years ago. I was like, ‘Oh my god it’s so perfect. It’s so big, everybody’s so beautiful.’
First NYC post: I started working at Les Halles Downtown. I worked at Brasserie Ruhlmann at Rockefeller Center. I worked at Les Deux Gamins. And one day, I walked by Extra Virgin. It was like a dream scene. This neighborhood has always been such a beautiful place.
On his neighborhood nickname: They call me the mayor of the neighborhood, because I spend five days a week here. I’m always here, even though I live in Brooklyn. I know everybody. I go outside, I go to every bar, know every bartender. Even though this is New York City, the West Village is so different. As the ‘mayor,’ I get free drinks everywhere. In the business everybody knows everybody, so they treat me specially. I treat them specially, everybody who comes here, too.
On the first days of the West Village institution: It was busy. It was difficult. It was different because it was only one side before we expanded. There was a line outside right from the beginning. Now, it’s getting bigger and busier and busier and busier. It’s a neighborhood institution and it’s so open to residents and fits well in the neighborhood.
On his job description: I take care of communication. I see myself as an ambassador. I take care of customers and say hi to regulars walking by. At the same time I take care of the seating, turning the tables, who’s coming in. I give wait times. When it’s busy, I’m the peacemaker for the restaurant. I say hi to all the dogs and the babies.
Crazy customer demands: When I say that the wait is going to be 45 minutes, some people will say, “Oh no, my uncle owns the restaurant.” Those are usually like people that come from New Jersey who aren’t used to waiting 45 minutes. We don’t take reservations here, so I get a lot of that.
The best menu item: I love the Mushroom Crusted Virgin Chicken and I love the halibut, too. On Sunday nights we’ve got meatballs. People come just for the meatballs. It’s $20 for two meatballs, and you can’t even finish them, they’re so big. I always take some home and use it in my baguette the next day. Always better the next day. We can’t make enough of them. For brunch, people come for the French toast.
Idols: Oh definitely Joey and Michele. They’re perfect bosses. They let me be who I am and you see why I love it here. Everybody’s laid back, cool, relaxed. I worked for some people uptown that made me wear a suit and tie. That wasn’t me. I also look up to Jean-Claude Baker of Chez Josephine in the theater district because he’s got such a presence at the door and has been my mentor.
On turning into a New Yorker: I’m a New Yorker by heart. I have an accent and I still eat French cuisine, but NYC is the place to be. It’s like a puzzle. My parents are still in France. The last time I was there it was like five years ago but my mom still takes care of me. She calls me every week and is like, “Are you eating well? Are you feeling well?” She’s very mommy wise.
On his signature look: I always wear a hat. It’s my signature. When you work in a restaurant, it’s a show. You’re a character. It’s always easy to find me in the restaurant. I probably have like 60 or 70 hats, and I’ve never bought a single one. I get them as gifts from customers. One time a lady came in, and I didn’t even know her. She said, “I’ve been coming to your restaurant for a long time, and I want your name.” She sent me a bag with like 25 hats. She wrote, “I’ve been to your restaurant so many times and I saw that you always wore a hat. Enjoy these.” I felt terrible because I had made her wait for a table. She waited for like 45 minutes. I never say no to a hat.
Drama in the his quaint restaurant: One time a neighborhood guy came in with a girl who wasn’t his girlfriend, and the girlfriend later came in with her friends. He told her that he was sick and took out another girl. I had to play peacemaker. Guys come in here too and try to hook up with girls. They try to bribe me to give their number to girls, but I never do it, unless the girl actually wants to talk to them.
It’s about time somebody launched a festival dedicated solely to the consumption of booze, with zero pretense of cultural distractions like movies or music. The first-ever Manhattan Cocktail Classic kicks off this weekend, with events like “The Agave Session: The Magical Elixirs of Mexico,” and “Cocktail Kingdom Presents: A Practical Guide to Barware from Around the World.” Beyond the seminars, which promise to have many tastings, there’s a series called “Stories from Behind the Bar” where you can get up close and personal with bartending talent on their home turf.
You can hang out with Julie Reiner of Clover Club, Dushan Zaric & Jason Kosmas of Employees Only, Audrey Saunders of Pegu Club, and Jim Meehan of PDT. The “Stories” series allows for tastings of signature cocktails and the regaling of hilarious bar tales. The grand finale on Sunday night takes place at the New York Public Library’s Astor Hall, with big band jazz, classic pre-Prohibition food, and plenty of dancing. Most of the events take place at Astor Center downtown, and tickets run about $50, though the final event on Sunday is $100. Check it out for yourself here. Or follow them on Twitter here.
Lately, dining out in Manhattan has been feeling a lot like dining in a high school cafeteria. The seats at the popular table are filled with everyone who is anyone, and unless you have Daddy’s Porsche or are cheer captain, you’ll never get to sit. Which is why it has been so difficult to round up my friends for a proper meal in this city. Suggest a reservation, and you’ll receive reservations. “What a headache,” one friend, a spunky PR princess purported. “It’s too expensive to eat anywhere these days, if you can even get a reservation at a good place … it’s like a fucking aristocracy.” No doubt the economic downturn has affected many of my comrades’ fun-funds, making the all-important New York dinner an endangered species. Our “industry” has peer-pressured us into thinking that the only bite worth eating is one we can barely afford, so how do you convince the industry folk that cheap eats can be chic eats?
Last night I gathered a group of fellow editors, stylists, foodies, fashion PR persons, and nightlifers and made a reservation at ‘wichcraft to prove that dinner can be done, and be done well, even if it isn’t a recession-proof McNally favorite.
“So, what is this, like a sandwich shop?” A friend, we’ll call him D, asks as we gather on the street corner near the Gramercy outpost. We must have been too busy taking out loans for our next dinner at the Waverly Inn to notice neighborhood staples like ‘wichcraft adjusting to meet the needs of their patrons in this less-than-balmy economic climate. The go-to lunch spot has introduced a seriously under-hyped new dinner menu in the hideaway upstairs. Chef Sisha churns out creative, hefty plates like blackened beef short ribs, served with a bright tomato salad and pitch-perfect horseradish cream, and the marinated eggplant & goat cheese — a vegetarian favorite — for a puny price. In fact, all 19 dishes on the menu are under $11. Many of last night’s attendees, even the reservation-wielding fashion editors, were dumbfounded to find that Tom Colicchio’s standby sandwich shop had the capacity to produce such refined plates.
Even more surprising: the ambiance of the second floor dining room provided a simple elegance that allowed for dinner-party-caliber seating (there were 15 of us), intimate date nooks, and even some table hopping. Tiny tea lights, stark artwork, and clean lines dominate the space, allowing the focus to fall on your food and friends. “How did you find this place?” someone asked, sure that this was some secret dining club, or fabulous new speakeasy. Aside from the fact that you’ll get some serious street cred from foodie friends, the place stands out for a number of different merits. Reactions were documented.
Subject: Steven Rojas. Occupation: Man about town (really, a director at Archetype Showroom). Favorite Restaurant: Employees Only. So, how were the drinks? We had white wine for the table, which was plentiful and very good. The dishes are shareable; how are the portions? Each seemed perfect, not too filling, but also hearty I guess you could say? Like, I was interested to try a little bit, and then ended up eating the entire dish? A dish like the meatballs with garlic seemed small, but we split that between two people, and we felt stuffed. How is the food in general? Interesting items, but so good. It was almost surprising that I found myself cleaning the plate of something called pork & pickle. The avocado & radish salad was strangely delicious — a perfect opener and a great alternative to an appetizer salad. I really loved the blackened beef short ribs. The horseradish crème was not overpowering. Is the vibe of the dining room conducive to a group dinner? Yes. But it’s sort of what you make it. We talked about vulgar things, got drunk, and I got some hot girl’s number. It could also be a fun date place. There’s something romantic about sharing plates. How are the prices? I have no idea how I can pay $9 for amazing, creative ceviche here, and $19 for it at another restaurant. It seems like the more creative you get with dishes, the more expensive it is, but I would have to disagree in this case. It seems like I ripped the place off, instead of the other way around, which is the usual. Who would you bring to a place like this? Well, we had a big group, but for $16 bottles of wine, I foresee some after work happy hours. And I’m already planning on taking someone here for a date.
The Bottom Line: With friendly wait staff, a hidden dining room, $16 bottles of wine, and creative food pairings that impresses even the most faddish of guests, perhaps we’ll be able to put focus on great neighborhood favorites the next time we dine, rather than the new hot place.
Bill Gilroy is one of the industry’s real players. Known as a hardass no-nonsense operator at places like Nell’s, Lucky Strike, and Match, he was one of those people always at the heart of well- run, successful places. His word has always been respected and good — a rarity in a world know for characters who try to get away with anything. Today, Employees Only and the new Macao Trading Co. are predictably making waves, and Bill Gilroy is behind them bringing experience, savvy, and that good word. I caught up to Bill at the Pod Hotel. We sat in his Pod Cafe and enjoyed food from his son Devon, the executive chef.
When did Billy become Bill? I’ve always known you as Billy Gilroy. If somebody asks my name, I say Bill.
I prefer Steven. My closest friends call me Steven, but almost everybody calls me Steve, and that’s because Steve Rubell told me it’s a very familiar name. Bill is a solid name; Billy is familiar — it’s like you’re accessible if you’re a Billy, whereas Bill might be a little more formal. Yeah, and William’s even more formal
Were you ever William? I was only William the first day of school, that’s it, or whenever I’m signing something, obviously.
You’re one of the most important people behind Nell’s, one of New York’s iconic clubs. The big breakout for Nell’s was the night they turned Cher away because she wouldn’t pay the five-dollar cover charge, and everybody paid five dollars at Nell’s. Well, actually, they didn’t recognize her. She had two young Spanish boys on her arms, and as they approached — actually before she even got within 10 feet of the ropes, I think — Thomás Mueller just said “It’s not happening tonight” without even going to the ropes. After that we had Thomás reading People magazine, because he was German and new to the country.
Cher was big news back then; Nell’s was seriously exclusive and serious about that 5 dollar cover. It really gave the club a boost. They turned away Eddie Murphy. He was with 12 people, and it was five dollars to get in, and he was ready to pay, but his entourage was like, “:Eddie Murphy don’t pay!”. So they kind of just got put through the other door. He came back the next night and paid the five dollars
He was at the Tunnel one night — he had a bottle of champagne, and the waitress came to me and said, “Eddie Murphy says that he doesn’t pay.” I didn’t mind him not paying because I would have comped him a bottle of champagne, but I wanted to go over to him — because my attitude was, if I comped a celeb a bottle of champagne, that means I was dropping their name in Page 6 tomorrow. That was the price. So I walked over to him and said, “I don’t mind you not paying, but in the future get a manager … the waitress doesn’t know to comp you if I’m not here.” And he said, “My clothes don’t have any pockets.” He was wearing a leather jumpsuit, and he didn’t have any pockets. You know he hates to get touched; he always had a bunch of people around him, because if you touched him, he really freaked out. Prince used to come to Nell’s quite often too, and he was also someone who he would never order directly — he would order through his bodyguard. He was one of those people — I guess similar to Michael Jackson — who’s so shy, and then they get up on stage and become so dynamic
What about you? You’ve mellowed over the years. I’ve not always been thought of as being the most easygoing,
How have you calmed down? Because I’ve been talking to you now for a few hours, and you’re a calm and collected and peaceful human being. Well, I’m working on my fifth marriage now, so that kind of wears you out. I’d like to think I wouldn’t make the same mistakes or react the same way as I did in my 20s or 30s over certain circumstances, just by virtue of the evolution of your consciousness through experience. Like they say, reincarnation is perfection to experience — it takes a few hundred times for me to get it, but I’ve had time to do it.
The club business is so rewarding — when it is rewarding — that you can fulfill a lot of your fantasies and your goals within it. You don’t necessarily have to prove yourself anymore after a certain point; you can look back and say. “I’ve done this body of work, I don’t have to answer to anybody, I may be a saloon-keeper — as Rick said in Casablanca — but that’s what I want to be.” And you are a saloon-keeper. Absolutely. You know, I serve soup and sandwich. That’s the common denominator here. I serve it to all types of people, whether they’re in fashion, the arts, Wall Street, or whatever. And for me it’s always been about networking, but networking in a way that the people who come get to meet people in fields perhaps opposite of what they’re into. For example, actors don’t necessarily want to meet other actors; they want to meet other people who live their lives differently.
Where did you get your start? I started at La Gamelle. I don’t know if you remember La Gamelle — it was on Grand Street, where Lucky Strike is now. I worked there with Florent Morellet, who opened Florent. He was the waiter, and I was the bartender, and there was a guy name Alex, little crazy Alex … He was the owner, an Algerian guy. I was there for the first five years. And then I went form there to the Water Club with Buzzie O’Keefe, and then I went to Café Luxembourg — that was Keith McNally. And then I went to Nell’s, and I was the maître ’d at Odeon.
And Keith was at Nell’s also, right? Yeah. Then I opened Lucky Strike with Keith, then went to Match from there, and then Match uptown, and then Match Hamptons, and then now most recently, Employees Only and Macao Trading Co.
We ate at Odeon yesterday, and my assistant Mary is sitting with us, and she’d never been there. I don’t know how many years old it is … 15, 20, 25? Almost 30 years old.
So now when you talk about training a staff — this is a three-week process with Keith McNally, and it’s really heavy — and it shows. You went through the Keith McNally system — Absolutely, he was definitely my mentor.
What does “service” mean to you? Everybody uses this word — we’re going to provide the best service there is, etc. So what does that mean? For me, great service is when it exceeds your expectations. If you go to a restaurant, you expect to be served, you expect the food to be decent, you expect that atmosphere to be nice … but when it exceeds that expectation, sometimes you can’t put your finger on it exactly. It’s important that the people I hire bring more to the table than just your basics, so I often prefer artists or people aspiring to be something else — they’re not career waiters. I’ve always felt like in traditional French or Italian restaurants, where they’re working those double shifts — those French shifts — and they’re subservient, and they’re standing off to the side … they almost look like they’ve been beaten down, and they’re not supposed to interact with the table. I’ve never enjoyed it personally, being served like that. When I am hiring people, it’s people who can interact with the table, they have a certain way about them … nice personalities and nice people.
I always hated it when they’re an actor, and after four years, they’re still bartending for me. I wanted them to get out and do well. Of course. And they bring that to the job — the fact hat they have some depth to them, another side, they can talk to the table. I’ve said many times the staff I have is more interesting than the clientele.