Meet Me At the Saloon
Ever get the feeling certain bars don’t really want you to keep coming back?
Those hidden signs, those expensive cocktails with too many esoteric ingredients that take a long time to serve, never mind getting past the host who can make acceptance into an ivy league law school sound less exclusionary, and then once inside, the “bar” doesn’t even have stools and you can’t interact with the person making your drinks… enough already!
The good news is now that the cocktail revival and craft beer movement have changed the way we approach drinking, people aren’t afraid to open a good ol’ regular saloon again in a casual setting with a simple cocktail menu, often with better beer options and less pricey ways to enjoy them. And you’re not made to feel a seat at the bar is an earned privilege. No waiting list at the door. You just walk right up!
The beloved neighborhood saloon is back! Here are four New York City establishments with their own takes on the casual-bar-with-quality-drink-ingredients concept. Of course a good saloon has to serve a great burger, and they all have their version of that too:
The most recent arrival is the Happiest Hour, taking over the former Kingswood space on Greenwich and West 10th St, headed by Acme’s Jon Neidich and Jim Kearns, of Pegu Club and NoMad Hotel Bar. It makes sense this would be their collective next move, as it seems the sort of place hospitality professionals like them would want to go after a shift. Hence the name. The menu is designed in the old retro Howard Johnson’s placemat format, with an assortment of salads, dips, Bonsai chicken bites and, of course, a house burger. Sides include healthier veggie options, which will make you feel better about that root beer float or sundae you’ll be tempted to order (the place has a real When-in-Rome vibe, well, if “Rome” was Al’s Diner from Happy Days but with pretty palm tree wallpaper instead of wood paneling, structural architecture and mood lighting. I wonder if anyone has raised two thumbs and said, “ehhhhhh” as they drunkenly exited the bathroom yet?) Many of the cocktails are the Choose Your Own Adventure highball variety with various juices, bitters and spices and then choice of whiskey, gin, vodka, tequila and/or rum, with cute names like Link Ray, What the Doctor Ordered and Little Red Dress. But they’re happy to make the classics too, and they even use old-fashioned-style-but-better-for-you maraschino cherries from a crafty purveyor for garnishes. Burger style: Big, gooey, cheesy with “secret sauce.”
Boilermaker has taken over the former Golden Cadillac space at the “Nexus of the Universe” at 1st Ave and 1st Street. As irritating as GC was (Sorry. There. I said it.) with so-called “reimagined” 70s drinks and kitschy food that fell out of fashion for VERY good reason and shouldn’t have gotten up, Boilermaker serves stuff people really want to drink and eat when they go to a bar, especially in the East Village. GC’s makeover into Boilermaker is largely at the hands of one of the most hospitable high volume tenders in the biz, Erick Castro, along with longtime cocktail pros Don Lee and Greg Boehm, with chef Miquel Trinidad. Beer and shot pairings go from simple beer and a whiskey (three versions of that even) to the Machete in Space (Tecate and The 86 Co. Cabeza Blanca tequila) to the Dark and Bitter (Victory Storm King Stout and Ramazzotti Amaro) and will even do “bucket” pricing for groups. Cocktails include highballs on tap (genius!) and a simple range of mixed drinks, most at $11, increasingly rare for the neighborhood. You can’t exactly eat healthy here - it’s all burgers, wings and fried things - but are you really going to eat a kale salad with beer and shots? However, if you want good soda and non-alcoholic cocktails, they have that too. Burger style: greasy, salty and juicy in the best possible ways. Just make sure you get a pile of napkins before you dig in.
It’s a local triumph that Toby Cecchini was able to sweet talk the Long Island Bar’s landlords into opening the former diner space on the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Henry St. which had remained shut for years because of a longstanding family meshugas dispute. Now that beautiful neon shines again, thanks to him! As Happiest Hour goes out of its way to shun wood paneling, Long Island Bar celebrates it, with another fantastic neon beacon - the NO DANCING sign near the rest rooms. The decor might be spare, but what’s behind the bar is not. The cocktail menu is short and sweet - the star of which is that old classic The Boulevardier, essentially a whisky Negroni - along with a tight, carefully selected list of beer and wines. The back bar is stocked to the gills with an impressive array of whiskies from Brooklyn to Japan, gins, tequila, mezcal, liqueurs, amari, bitters and other goodies, allowing the talented roster of bartenders (which includes Tim Miner, Phil Ward, Tristan Willey and even Cecchini himself) to create spectacular drinks to suit any customer. The garnishes for the cocktails, including what have to be the hands down best Gibson onions in the universe and spicy cherries, are made in house. The food menu is also simple, with items like linguini and clams, a merguez sandwich with frites, a “ham snack” and other small offerings, oh, and burger. Burger style: tart, cheesy and pickly, that comes in two sizes (the regular with two patties and the one-patty Lady Burger), and two serving options - bacon wheel and/or $75 bottle of Champagne!
Farther out in Brooklyn is Forrest Point in Bushwick, which is helmed by Darin Rubell of Boulton & Watt and Ella. Dustin Olson, formerly of Ward III, designed the cocktail menu, including versions of milk punch (I loved the Islay Cyrus), which requires a meticulous aging process and thus rarely seen on menus these days. But as intricate as that sounds, the place is casual, simple and easy. The other drinks are delicious and fun to say, such as Jets to Brazil #2, Pimmy Gibbler and Falcon Lake Incident and the wine and beer lists offer a lot of good choices too. Food is the healthiest of the bunch of these establishments, (they actually DO have a kale salad! And it’s salty, sweet, bitter, crunchy and addictive with toasted quinoa and pomegranate seeds) as well as yummy tuna tartar wonton tacos, tangy fried cauliflower, dips, sandwiches (including Porchetta with slow roast pork, broccoli rabe, caramelized onions, fig and apricot spread), duck fried rice and yup, they have a burger too. They have a great outdoor patio for warmed months too. Staff is super friendly and they too have a lot of fun stuff to play with behind the bar for cocktail improvisation. For the creative crowd nostalgic for the likes of the dearly departed Life Café in the East Village, this place is for you. Burger style: simple and saucy with potato bun.
See you in the neighborhood! Cheers!