Dutch Kills is no secret, but for the uninitiated, it can still feel like one. A dark stretch of Jackson Avenue isn't where you'd expect to find bartenders hand cracking ice for pre-Prohibition cocktails in a dark wood-paneled bar. But it sells what are likely the best mixed drinks in Queens for about $11 a pop, and though it can get a little crowded at peak hours, it's easier to get a table on slow nights.
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
This restaurant beneath Kaufman Astoria Studios works hard to enliven an industrial sector of the neighborhood with a Roaring Twenties vibe that includes frequent live jazz, vintage as well as specialty cocktails, and menu items like Oysters Rockefeller and Beef Wellington. The food, in my experience, doesn't usually live up to the high prices it commands, but the drinks, if not mindblowingly original, are executed well. The best I've tried is the Valentino ($10), an icy smooth blend of Rittenhouse Rye, Cocchi sweet vermouth, and Campari. You can also order it with gin or vodka, but rye's spicy kick shines best alongside bittersweet fortified wine in this high-proof (and generously portioned) drink.
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
A new addition to Astoria and Long Island City's growing barbecue world (see our first look here), The Strand seems to be better for its drinks than its food. It's a huge beer garden as much a restaurant, with an interior that can seat two hundred and room for another hundred in the backyard.
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
This neighborhood spot for nouveau Mexican food has a sizable tequila collection, which you can sample straight or in margaritas and other cocktails. There's some good stuff here, but the simplest drinks are your best bets for success, like the Tequila Mockingbird ($9), a long drink of Espalon silver tequila with lime, mint, and cucumber. It's summer in a glass: cool, clean, and very well balanced.
The Bohemian Beer Hall is one of Astoria's major draws to New Yorkers outside the neighborhood. Which is a shame, because frankly it's a loud frat boyish place with a mediocre beer selection (I'll take a trip to Radegast over it any day). But across the street you'll find The Sparrow, a popular neighborhood gastropub with a cocktail list more enterprising than you'd expect. Like at The Strand, the drinks here are pleasantly rough around the edges and best taken with the ribsticking food they accompany.
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.