As the saying goes, if ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Yet when it comes to the best cocktails, even the most perfected of classics—the martini—can’t escape the whirlwind of adaptation, innovation and riffs that makes New York’s culinary scene so vibrant. Mad-scientist mixologists and cocktail geeks, with their liqueurs, bitters, tinctures and infusions, have left their creative mark on every cocktail imaginable, including this precious concoction of gin-and-vermouth (or vodka), transforming it into countless flavorful variations, each more unique than the last. Explore the wonderful world of alternative martinis with a visit to these bars in NYC.
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Non-classic martinis in NYC
In 2014, the detail-oriented folks behind Raines Law Room opened this Gramercy neo-speakeasy in O. Henry’s old stomping grounds and have been honoring the great writer (and drinker) with playfully evocative decor, well-executed cafe-style bites and a seasonal menu of top-notch tipples ever since. While all of Dear Irving’s cocktails turn heads, the dessert-esque Espresso Martini, inspired by legendary London bartender Dick Bradsell, is a true must. Smooth vodka is shaken hard with nutty, crisp Irving Farm cold-brew coffee and a hint of vanilla essence, then presented in a chilled coupe topped with a luxurious crema cap fit to rival anything nearby Stumptown could offer.
A design-forward Lower East Side cocktail bar with a trendy, intimate vibe, Bar Goto boasts all the polished details, expert service and quality eats New Yorkers have come to expect out of upscale Japanese drinking dens. Here, tall piles of divinely spicy miso chicken wings and pork belly–stuffed cabbage pancakes are served alongside Pegu Club alum Kenta Goto’s mouthwatering menu of Asian-influenced cocktails. The Sakura Martini tops the list at Goto, both literally and figuratively, with its potent blend of sake, gin, a touch of maraschino liqueur and a single, sweet-smelling cherry blossom, making for a springtime sipper that looks just as lovely as it tastes.
With its mid-century furnishings, nostalgia-inducing neon marquee and menu stocked with French-American comfort favorites, the Odeon has been attracting New York night owls since its famed 1980 debut. While Basquiat and Warhol might be long gone, this Tribeca institution still offers prime late-night people-watching along with a trusted menu of classic cocktails littered with a few standout modernizations. The Ginger Martini, a crowd-pleasing mix of Ketel One Citroen vodka, freshly grated ginger, Cointreau and lemon juice, is a bright, summery option, while the elegant Cucumber Martini (Hendrick’s gin, cucumber, St. Germain elderflower liqueur) and the signature Tabini Martini (Stolichnaya Ohranj vodka, fresh mint, lime) transport drinkers back to the Odeon’s glory days of glitz, glamour and pure downtown indulgence.
A dive bar? On a martini list? Believe it or not, the East Village’s notoriously grimy Double Down Saloon is credited with inventing the extremely unique—and extremely tasty—house-infused Bacon Martini. If it’s a down and dirty drinking experience you want, skip the Ass Juice shots and get to work on this smoky, salty cocktail, served heavy metal–strong and garnished with a Slim Jim. Double Down’s punk rock–blaring jukebox, porn-plastered walls and graffitied bathrooms provide the perfect environment for enjoying something so strangely delicious.
A laid-back East Village joint with a breezy neighborhood cafe feel, Bua is best known for two things: delectably gooey grilled cheese sandwiches and the utterly original McClure’s Pickle Martini. Fans of the ever-popular pickleback shot will enjoy this slow-sipped version, where frosty vodka or gin mingles with briny pickle juice for a tart and surprisingly balanced cocktail. Add on an order of steaming hot cheese curds or a grilled cheddar on pillowy pullman bread for a perfectly playful pairing.
Upscale Lebanese fare is the name of the game over at Ilili, where gorgeous, art deco floor-to-ceiling interior windows, low seating and draped walls set the tone for this cozy yet classy Midtown restaurant. Long, sleek and lit by the warm glow of hanging Edison bulbs, Ilili’s bar area caters to the after-work crowd with overloaded mezze platters, herb-spiked Phoenician fries and, of course, plenty of inventive cocktails, include their signature Not So Bloody Martini. A take on the brunch staple, this curious mix of chilled vodka, horseradish juice, cooling tomato consommé and enticing jalapeño kick acts as the ideal companion to any of Ilili’s succulent small plates.
If live jazz, celebrity spotting and fireside imbibing are your thing, look no further than the Rose Bar, a quiet refuge within the posh Gramercy Park Hotel. Inside, impossibly high ceilings, warm lighting and pop art-strewn walls create a lively and inviting atmosphere, while upscale bar snacks and a seemingly endless list of custom martinis keep hotel guests and lucky visitors satiated until the wee hours. The Pear Martini is a special treat amongst the Rose Bar’s many choices, where juniper-forward Hendrick’s Gin is shaken with smoky Glenfiddich scotch, fresh pear puree, tart lemon juice and a hint of agave for an exquisitely balanced work of mixologist art.
Make an espresso martini at home
Sweet Polly is like that perfect girl in high school: undeniably beautiful and effortlessly cool, armed with brains to back it all up. At this Prospect Heights bar from Hungry Ghost owner Murat Uyaroglu, the tables are consistently packed with well-heeled Brooklynites; the space is stunning, with gilded tin ceilings and a lush garden wall, and the cocktail execution is fingertip-kissing good. And like with the school-days Polly of your past, there are plenty of times you’ll feel ignored, but just when you’re about to smack-talk her, she gives you an extra sample of beef jerky. ORDER THIS: Bartender–co-owner Bruno Dias’s cocktails highlight unusual ingredients, like green bell peppers, BBQ bitters and yogurt, that are sure to satiate curious palates. The Golden Eye ($13) is a standout: Stumptown cold brew is stirred with Icelandic vodka, herbal Italian amaro and chocolate bitters to create a rich, velvety, caffeine-blasted drink. The bar’s head turner, however, is the rosy Rocket Lunar ($13), which is set in a snifter topped with egg-white foam and a grilled dehydrated pineapple. Inside the cup, BBQ bitters curb the sweetness of the drink’s kalamansi syrup and aged cachaça, along with an added touch of cinnamon from tiki bitters. GOOD FOR: A grown-up date for that prospective S.O. who’s slightly out of your league. Everything is on point for romance: The ambience is sumptuous, the cocktails are unconventional, and the circular, candlelit tables are tailor-made for two. Plus, t
Venue says: “Introducing: -The Komfortably Knumb A play on Smash with Kumquats and Aquavit.Refreshing citrus flavors with touches of caraway and anise.”