Meet the city's best bars
The shuttering of Milk & Honey on New Year’s Eve 2012—13 years, to the day, after it opened—may have sounded the death knell for the modern-day speakeasy, but just a few months later, the haunt’s former bartenders Michael McIlroy and Sam Ross picked up where Sasha Petraske left off. Ross and McIlroy rechristened the space as Attaboy and kept many of the affectations that made the late Petraske’s infinitely influential bar simultaneously alluring and maddening. More than two years later, there’s still no menu (Ross and McIlroy prefer to engage in a conversation about each patron’s mood or fancy) nor any sign of snacks or a kitchen. But it’s still one of the best places for boozehounds to sip an artfully crafted cocktail. Mercifully banished is Milk & Honey’s byzantine reservation policy, and the space overall is more open, welcoming and approachable than its predecessor. This is everyman’s Milk & Honey, with cans of Coors Light and slightly less expensive but no less labor-intensive cocktails, which continue to draw crowds to this corner of the Lower East Side. (To ensure entry, arrive early and simply knock on the door.)
Runner-up: The Dead Rabbit
We asked for your favorite bar in town, and nearly 6,000 votes later, this Bronx brew haven proved victorious. Nestled among the cannoli and capicola inside the Arthur Avenue Retail Market, this fave dispenses local suds from its namesake borough (Gun Hill Brewing Co.) alongside ones from Queens (Bridge and Tunnel Brewery), Brooklyn (Threes Brewing) and Long Island (Barrier Brewing). Snag a stool at the bar or sit communally among the tourists and locals noshing on oil-drenched antipasto platters from the market’s food vendors. Speaking of soaking up the brews, opt for a mortadella-, salami- and provolone-stacked Italian sub from Mike’s Deli or fennel-sausage pizza from John’s Pizzeria. “As Bronx natives, we take pride in having created a venue that encourages newcomers to visit our borough,” says Anthony Ramirez II, who owns the bar with his brother, Paul. The bros can rest assured we—and apparently many others—are happy to make the trip.
Runner-up: Whiskey Tavern
For its size and relative youth—Clover Club opened in 2008—Julie Reiner’s Cobble Hill drinks den has had a disproportionate influence on the NYC cocktail scene. It’s served as a proving ground for such industry hotshots as Franky Marshall (Monkey Bar), Brad Farran (Death & Co) and Bar Awards judge Ivy Mix (Leyenda), and it’s spawned dozens of copycats from Brooklyn to Boise. The conceit is simple: high-quality staples and innovative seasonal cocktails (the menu changes regularly) in a chic, Jazz Age–inspired room bedecked with a dark mahogany bar, maroon leather banquettes and vintage sofas and chaises. But it comes down to Reiner and Co.’s pitch-perfect execution of fan faves, like the Improved Whiskey Cocktail ($12) and the New York Sour ($6), that makes Clover Club essential for serious New York drinkers. “The menu offered at Clover is consistently top-notch and never disappointing,” says Pamela Wiznitzer, New York chapter president of the United States Bartenders Guild and creative director at Seamstress on the Upper East Side. “It’s one of those New York gems that you step into for one quick sip and end up spending hours in your seat, because you’re having such a great experience. I wish we had more bars like this in our city.”
Runner-up: Death & Co
At this summer’s Spirited Awards in New Orleans—essentially the Oscars of the cocktail scene—this Financial District drinks den from U.K. expats Jack McGarry and Sean Muldoon took home the coveted World’s Best Bar Award. So, yeah, pretty big deal—not that it’s going to the crew’s heads. “The bartending team is remarkable simply because they completely lack in pretense,” says Aaron Goldfarb, an author and Dead Rabbit regular. “The dock workers ordering pints of Guinness or vodka sodas are given the same deference as cocktail-bar scenesters wondering what vermouth is used in the house Tipperary,” he says, adding, “and the dock workers might not even realize they’re in the so-called ‘World’s Best Bar.’ ” The bi-level watering hole comprises two arenas. The first is a street-level saloon boasting a rough-and-tumble, sawdust-speckled vibe with working- and upper-class sippers standing shoulder to shoulder, knocking back whiskey slugs, pints of pilsner and Pop-Inns, which are a sort of 17th-century boilermaker with beer and liquor in the same glass. The second is the upstairs parlor, an all-around classier affair with a handsome curved bar and tucked-away booths, where patrons can try all manner of pre-Prohibition tipples—slings, toddies, flips, follies, scaffas, punches, nogs and juleps—from vintage China teacups or exquisite, period-proper stemware. Activity on both levels is conducted under the no-detail-left-unchecked care of the staff. A much-deserved win, indeed.
Runner-up: Death & Co
Clover Club owner Julie Reiner and drink slinger Ivy Mix, who the Spirited Award for American Bartender of the Year 2015, opened this 50-seat Pan-Latin coctelería in May, serving not only mescal- and tequila-laced libations but a whole roster of other Central and South American–originating spirits, like rum, cachaça and pisco. In the six months since the bar’s unveiling, Mix has made a splash with her signature Tia Mia ($13), a smoky blend of mescal, Jamaican rum, orange curaçao and orgeat syrup, as well as Buena Onda ($12), made with yerba-maté–infused pisco, lemon, lime and egg whites. Former Sueños chef Sue Torres has resurfaced here to oversee Leyenda’s comida, dishing out Mexican- and Peruvian-inspired dishes like ahi tuna ceviche with pomegranate seeds ($13) and cochinita pibil (roast pork) tacos with Seville orange and pickled onions ($13). The space also embraces its Latin influences without feeling overly themey, with touches like church pews, crosses, candles and softly playing salsa music in the bucolic back garden that will persuade you to stick around for one more.
Runner-up: The Happiest Hour
When the overachieving boys behind Eleven Madison Park and the NoMad restaurant announce they’re opening a bar, you listen. When you hear they’ll serve hot dogs, cheeseburgers, fried chicken and other corner-deli staples, you may scratch your head in confusion, but still, you check it out. And that’s when the fun starts. Not only are those hot dogs and cheeseburgers of the same technical quality and execution you’d expect at Eleven Madison, but the drinks to pair with them, from bar director Leo Robitschek, are elegant, amusing and, above all, full of ceaseless pleasure. That’s why this year’s Best Hotel Bar and Grand Prix Award goes to Daniel Humm and Will Guidara’s luxurious drinkery, a peerless bar and kitchen tucked inside the sprawling NoMad complex on Broadway. “When Will and I first set out to open a bar, we knew it needed to be an extension of what we do at the restaurant but with a more casual menu and atmosphere,” says Chef Humm. “It needed to be the type of place you stop by for a cocktail after work or where you can make an evening of eating and drinking with friends in a banquette.” Humm notes that he and his partners drew inspiration for both design and concept from New York’s storied taverns and saloons while recognizing that Robitschek’s beverage program, a huge hit at the hotel’s restaurant, would be the focus and draw. The drink list includes everything from an espresso-spiked Manhattan ($16) to what Robitschek calls “cocktail explosions”: large-format punches dispensed from towering spigot jars with crushed ice ($110 for about eight drinkers). “While we toned down the formality,” says Humm, “we never want to sacrifice the quality of the food, drinks or service.” Hear, hear.
Runner-up: The Clocktower
By-the-glass pours may be de rigueur at wine bars, but until recently they were a footnote at serious beer joints, where drafts and casks remain king. Enter Proletariat, the ever-charming railroad bar in the East Village, where patrons can choose from a rotating selection of six-ounce tasters poured from a mind-bending selection of obscure and rare large-format bottles. “Each beer we serve has its reasons for being on our menu,” says Cory Bonfiglio, Proletariat’s general manager. “We have a solid foundation of respect for the history of the liquid itself, the producers who envision new frontiers, the curiosity and acumen of importers and suppliers, and above all, our clientele.” What else sets this hideaway apart from the glut of other craft beer bars in NYC? For one, its self-proclaimed maxim to serve “rare, new and unusual” beers, offered in a range of sizes, from short four-ounce tasting drafts to tall 750-milliliter bottles. Post up at one of 10 seats along the slim bar, and order an eight-ounce draft of HopHands ($6), a fruity pale ale made creamy with oats from the übercultish Tired Hands brewpub located outside Philadelphia. Or mingle among the beer geeks up front at one of the high tables, where you can share a 17-ounce bottle of Oxbow’s hop-forward saison blend, Crossfade ($32). Proletariat offers an opportunity to explore some of the most esoteric beers in the city, like Panil Oak Aged Divina 2014 (6oz for $10), an unblended lambic-style sour ale from Birrificio Torrechiara in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region, or Off Color’s Radiolaria (6oz for $12), a 4.5 percent ABV American Wild Ale brewed in collaboration with Austin’s Jester King Brewery.
These days in New York, natural wine bars—drinkeries serving organically farmed vinos with no chemical manipulation—are a dime a dozen. There’s Racines NY in Tribeca, the Four Horsemen in Williamsburg and June in Cobble Hill. But this Lower East Side gem, located behind an unmarked door on Broome Street, helped start it all with its 2008 opening, and its list of biodynamic, small-producer-driven and often sulfite-free wines pack peeps into the bar to this day. “What makes the Ten Bells special as a wine bar is that it broke the cookie-cutter mold of an intimidating, stuffy place, like so many of the ones that came before,” says Jorge Riera, a former manager at the Ten Bells, now the wine director at Contra and Wildair. “It’s a jovial, saloonlike vibe but with a deep list of natural wines,” he says. “But most importantly, it’s accessible to everyone.” The list is lengthy but not daunting (the staff is eager to divulge what’s new and exciting if you’re scratching your head) and skews heavily toward young French and Italian producers. Surefire selections include the 2014 syrah from Herve Souhaut ($67 per bottle) and the 2014 Dynamitage Gamay from Baptiste Cousin ($53 per bottle), the son of famed Loire naturalist Olivier Cousin. The bar regularly holds Meet the Winemaker tastings (the most recent featured oenologist Jean-Michel Morel of Kabaj winery in Slovenia and Evan Lewandowski, who makes natural wine in Salt Lake City). It also serves a decent spread of meats and cheeses from Anne Saxelby Cheesemongers and Spanish-informed tapas, like vinegar-marinated boquerones and orbs of tuna-stuffed piquillo peppers.
Runner-up: Corkbuzz Wine Studio