Though you can certainly order off the drink list, this is a bar where you should feel comfortable putting yourself into the bartender's hands. A request for "gin, short, and aromatic" may present you with a superb Alaska, rich with lemon and bitter orange peel, or a Fitzgerald, a simple gin sour made surprisingly complex with Angostura. But when it's time for your nightcap, go for the Chancellor ("Something Scotch-based to complement what she's having"), a dark and moody mix of Scotch, port, sweet vermouth, and orange bitters that balances peaty smoke with flavors of orange peel and burnt cherries.
The Astor Room
Perhaps the best way to experience The Astor Room is during happy hour (5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.), when the specialty drinks are two-for-one. You can use the saved cash to dig into some oysters ($2.25 to $3.50 each, West and East Coast).
The Strand Smokehouse
The beer list is large and local, and a selection of approachable and esoteric bourbons and ryes sit behind the bar in oak barrels. Cocktails ($8) made with them are a little rowdy—there's no mistaking their whiskey base—with strong but bright and interesting flavors designed to complement the barbecue. The Lower Manhattan, my favorite of the lot, adds the herbal bitterness of housemade hop bitters to Rittenhouse and a mix of sweet and dry vermouths; a Liar's Club (above, left) balances Larceny Bourbon with plum soda, maple, and cinnamon; and the Brine & Barrel (above, right) reimagines the pickleback as a cocktail with Bulleit rye and a moonshine cherry.
It's worth noting that the backyard space directly faces an apartment building, and even in the winter neighbors are dealing with high noise late into the night. So if you go, drink inside instead.
The Strand Smokehouse: 25-27 Broadway, Astoria, NY 11106 (map); 718-440-3231
The cocktails change seasonally, but the current gin sour is the Mr. Buckley ($12), Hendrick's with Lillet, lime, and sage syrup. Only after the drink is mixed and poured does Campari join the glass, sinking to the bottom. That way you start with a refreshing herbal sour and finish with a Negroni-like sip scented with sage.