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Gage & Tollner martini
Photograph: Courtesy of Lizzie Munro

Let me Tell You—There are only two ways to enjoy a martini in NYC

And they’re both up close.

Amber Sutherland-Namako
Written by
Amber Sutherland-Namako

“Let Me Tell You” is a series of columns from our expert editors about NYC living, including the best things to do, where to eat and drink, and what to see at the theater. They publish each Wednesday so you’re hearing from us each week. Last month, Food & Drink Editor and Critic Amber Sutherland-Namako argued that all the good cocktails already exist.

Although martinis never left the tabs of grandmoms, throwback cosplayers and “five o’clock somewhere” celebrants, the simple mix came cackling back well over a year ago—as though the quintessential combination of gin, vermouth and olives or a twist could ever be forgotten. I first wrote about the bracing boomerang in October of 2021, when dedicated martini menus (meaning sections listing a few or more) started popping up citywide, including at great spots like Sidney’s Five and Gage & Tollner.

I’ve enjoyed the standard martinis and mild alternatives at both destinations. At Sidney’s in the East Village, they’re $17 a piece and veer into Vespers and apple-kissed varieties. Gage’s are $18 each, spinning into Gibsons and verging toward vodka. They’re stirred as a matter of course at either place and served very cold; a necessarily freezing achievement possible to replicate almost anywhere regardless of technique beliefs. But lately, most don’t. 

Both flashy, fancy Gage and casually cool Sidney’s are popular. They are busy. And they still manage to successfully make and deliver these conceptually modest, but highly temperature-dependent drinks as icy as intended, clear across their dining spaces. Other places I’ve visited lately with as-much-to-more buzz as these two trend-resetters at their height, do not. 

A companion faux posed as a $17 dirty lost its cool within view of our table very near the bar at a recent dinner. “I could walk over there and get it” … maybe one of those charming matriarch types could get away with it, but we could never. Would never. This same display had also happened to a $16 perfect the previous week at a lesser restaurant with almost as much attention but no present or future acclaim. And, come to think of it, it occurred even earlier at an unrightfully fully booked, bold-name operation, where the $21 Plymouth with a twist grew tepid out of reach. All over town, martinis are withering on the service bar vine. 

It isn’t enough to author a martini roster, although it is an admirable antidote to the boroughs’ ongoing blight of bad signature drinks. It isn’t enough to prepare an appropriately arctic martini, only to let it linger to ruin, betraying its maker, curator and aspiring imbiber. The martini must be delivered as invigorating as planned and expected, or all the effort, money and potential headache are wasted. There are two solutions. 

Photograph: Courtesy of Monterey

“More martinis should be tableside,” we agreed, a fantasy separate from the time, space and equipment that would be required to bring this sweet dream of ubiquity into consciousness. Still, there are places where you can get them. 

Williamsburg’s Maison Premiere has a wonderful tableside stir With Old Raj gin, the acceptably classic-adjacent zag of orange bitters and plump gordal olives for $25. I do not want to pay $25 for a martini every day, but I am, alas, not drinking martinis every day, and the difference between the middling, $21 offering elsewhere and this terrific option is . . . actually in my estimation more like $2, but close enough. Newer to NYC, Monterey in midtown has a choose-your-own martini cart where prices shake out to about $24-27, depending on your selections. Overall, programs such as these are few and far between.

The more obvious fix, as elegantly easy as the electronic equivalent of turning something off and on again, is just to sit at the bar; the shortest possible distance between the frosty shaker, the glass and you. It’s worked for me at the dive, where I neither know, nor care what spirit brands are blending, at my regular, where I’m a little too intimately acquainted with what’s in inventory, and at places where I’ll visit once and never again, though not for any reason other than the moment’s passed.

As inadvisable or grandiose as they can get, the martini’s key ingredient is cold; its enemies air, climate control and each tick-tock of the clock. 

These measures, however, create the best circumstances for an ideal martini, divisive ancillary specifications aside. And, worst case scenario, at least until last call, you’re still in a room full of booze. 

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