Difficult as it may be to remember, there was a time (not so long ago) before classic cocktails and "secret entrance" neo-speakeasies were the norm. Such was the case in 2004 when Employees Only opened its (not so obvious) doors in the West Village.
"We wanted to have classics on our menu, and so we took ones we liked or made our own variations," explains co-owner Dushan Zaric, a 16-year New York City bartending veteran. "It was super avant-garde at the time—we only had two vodka cocktails on the menu."
At the height of the Sex and the City Cosmo craze, here was a bar choosing instead to revive a long-forgotten 19th century recipe for a Manhattan. Its companion on the menu, the Provençal, was born out of a frustration over the frequent mislabeling of certain cocktails as "Martinis." It calls for the traditional gin and dry vermouth, but gives the spirits an aromatic facelift, infusing them with lavender and herbs de Provence, respectively. The drink was also, Zaric is quick to point out, designed to be the perfect match to a plate of oysters on the half shell.
"From the beginning, we weren't just a bar—we were a restaurant with a bar. We wanted to have serious drinks, but it also had to make gastronomical sense," reveals Zaric. He explains that he and his business partner Jason Kosmas (whom he worked with at Pravda in the 1990s), were determined to have a place where the food was as good as the drinks, and that offered good service with no attitude.
The statement may come as a bit of a surprise until you ask about his thoughts on the current scene and developing industry trends. "I don't know if the speakeasy trend is going to continue—I hope not. I hope that people open new restaurants with great cocktail programs," he says. "We have resurrected every era of the cocktail in the last 10 years and now what's left? Disco? I think the merging of the food and the cocktail experience is the next natural progression and raises things to a higher level across the board."
Other trends that excite him? "I like that 22-year-old girls are ordering gin cocktails and that 22-year-old guys (and girls) are ordering Old Fashioneds; I like the growing number of young, really good, educated bartenders, men and women; and I love that people will now go into a bar or restaurant and actually ask to see the cocktail menu."
To that end, we asked Zaric to recommend 5 favorite cocktails to try the next time you ask for the menu at Employees Only. Check out his picks in the slideshow above.