Why NYC’s New Cocktail Bars Are Embracing the City’s Past
Nostalgia and appletinis drive the menus at these just-opened watering holes
Cocktail culture is obsessed with the past — but that usually means something pre-Prohibition. When looking back, bartenders usually veer away from, say, the late 20th century, a time of Cosmopolitans and oversized martinis.
But some new cocktail bars around Manhattan are surprisingly looking to a more recent past when constructing their menus. Witness Madame George (45 W. 45th St. between 5th and 6th Aves), a new subterranean speakeasy from the folks behind Midtown’s popular gin temple Valerie, located next door. Walk downstairs and you’ll enter a 4,400-square-foot low-lit lounge that purposely pays homage to the history of New York City’s cocktail culture.
They explicitly make this old-is-new mission statement on the menu, which is full of illustrations that nod to the city’s history (there are drinks themed around category heads like “subways” and “Coney Island.”). As they write: “This menu is an ode to New York — the one with the bright lights and sleepless nights…Highlighting New York spirits, we’ve combined modern techniques and traditional practices to create drinks that express simplicity and uniqueness.”
Why look back? “Trends will always be cyclical — the other day I walked past someone wearing a pair of JNCO jeans! Cycled fashion trends are studied, but the same concept applies to business, as it does to cocktails,” explains Marshall Minaya, the Beverage Director at Madame George. “The nostalgia trend in bars has been coming back with a force as of late, and I assume most of us spending so much time at home due to COVID has a large part to play. And what better way to be transported to another time than with a flavor that is that sensory time machine?”
One look back that sticks out for Minaya is the Nuts4Nuts cocktail, a variation on a Manhattan “with a bit of street cred.” It’s made by fat-washing iichiko Saiten with honey-roasted street nuts literally from the street corner of 45th and 6th. “Aromatics play such an important part in our memory and we have a few cocktails on the menu to wake your senses up,” Minaya notes.
Other throwback highlights include As If —a riff on the Lychee-tini utilizing blanc vermouth infused with Lychee Black Tea and amplified with a touch of Giffard’s Lichi-Ali liqueur — and Second Place Finish, an elevated punch take on a Grasshopper featuring Pisco, Gifford de Cacao, lime and, no joke, chocolate mint ice cream.
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One old-school bar staple that won’t be available at Madame George? The shooter. “Mixing together a minor amount of citrus with three or four overly sweet artificial liqueurs for minimal reward seems like the opposite of what cocktail culture is trying to provide,” says Minaya.
A few other new cocktail joints that have one foot in the past:
- It’s not the same Milady’s (160 Prince St. at Thompson St.), but the former SoHo dive bar, which closed in 2014, has now been transformed by cocktail guru Julie Reiner (Clover Club, Leyenda) into something more upscale but still fun. “The whole reason we were excited about the space was because of the history, and we want to honor that in a reinvented way,” Reiner says in a press release. The menu includes updated takes on the Apple Martini, Blue Hawaiian and, yes, Jell-O shots, along with some recipes Reiner created in the ‘90s. Oh, not nostalgic, but there’s also a Knob Creek highball tap (highly recommended).
- Below the two Michelin-star restaurant Al Coro sits Discolo (85 10th Ave. between 15th and 16th Sts.), which belies its historical influence in the title — and in the venue’s light-up ceiling synced to music. Grab an Appletini and get down.
- The storied and revived Hotel Chelsea recently unveiled the Lobby Bar (226 W 23rd St near 7th Ave.), a ground-floor retro-inspired cocktail den full of velvet furniture, vintage chandeliers and artwork by former guests/tenants from the hotel. As for drinks: The bar focuses on classic libations from well-known bars around the globe, including takes on the Dukes Martini (from London’s Dukes Hotel) to the Singapore Sling (from the Raffles Hotel in Singapore).
- Opened just before summer, Vinyl Steakhouse (35 W. 19th St. between 5th and 6th Aves) is an ode to NYC music from the ‘70s and ‘80s— large black and white vintage photos of Debbie Harry, Beastie Boys and Run-DMC adorn the walls. Drinks guru Allen Katz had a hand in the cocktail menu, which focuses on remixed classics (martinis, gimlets, Jack & Coke and a 1987 Cosmo, featuring a cranberry jam-infused vodka).
- High ceilings, terrazzo tiled floors, velvet booths, Lazy Susans and an Art Deco sensibility inhabit Monterey (37 E. 50th St. between Park and Madison Aves), a just-opened American restaurant/bar in Midtown. The bar promises “imaginative takes on old favorites” (and a riff on the Porn Star Martini) but diners get the best deal — a build-your-own stirred martini cart rolled tableside.
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