There's no shortage of first-class cocktail bars in Manhattan. But recently, some of the best drinks in town come from restaurant bars.
As long as there have been restaurants, they've been making high margins off booze. But the rise of the restaurant cocktail program is a much more recent phenomenon. Whereas restaurants of even five years ago could get away with just beer and wine, and sure, a G&T if you ordered it, new establishments these days are all but expected to have signature cocktails. And as cocktail programs become more complex and increasingly make use of fresh ingredients, bartenders can lean on the resources of the kitchen or glean inspiration from the season's market haul. A few weeks back at a restaurant bar I frequent, the chef's need to use up a massive order of summer corn resulted in a new fresh corn milk-mezcal drink; later, the chef and cocktail designer talked at length about which citrus would pair best with sumac. While they may each have their own domain, principles of flavor and technique apply in the bar as much as in the kitchen; each benefits from the knowledge of the other.
And while seasonally-inspired eating is now a given, seasonal drinking is becoming the norm, too. Once bars ditch the pre-made syrups in favor of real fruits, it's not a far leap to wanting the best fruits—you're not likely to see a strawberry cocktail in January these days.
We've seen some restaurant bars aim to create cocktails that explicitly pair with the cuisine, along with many others that don't intend that close a relationship between food and drink. But as many customs of fine dining have started to slip—at just about any restaurant short of Per Se these days, it's perfectly normal to post up at the bar and share a plate or two over cocktails, rather than sit for a 3-course meal—the bar as a physical location takes on a more important role in the restaurant. Restaurants with small, sharable plates and extensive cocktail lists are all but the norm now, saying "Eat and drink here."
Here are our 10 favorite restaurant bars of late, with drinks the equal of any dedicated cocktail bar in town.
What's most impressive about Leo Robitschek's cocktail menu at NoMad is how it ranges all over the map—classics and house inventions, nonalcoholic drinks and booze-forward ones—but nails everything. We loved the Start Me Up (pictured above; all cocktails $15), powered by bourbon, rum, and Strega then shaken with lemon, honey, and ginger; and as a nonalcoholic refresher, it's hard to beat the basil-fennel soda with lemon and sparkling water (all non-alcoholic drinks $8).
A number of cocktails at Alder, Wylie Dufresne's gastropub in the East Village, are on tap—which makes it all the easier to order another round. (Or to order a half-priced half-cocktail, which they dub a "short"; and okay, one more half, and then another...)
Bar manager Kevin Denton's drinks are inventive but not overwrought, bold flavor combinations including gin, sumac, and strawberry in the Red Zeppelin ($14, short $7), or the rye, yuzu, amaro, and smoked maple in my favorite, Dr. Dave's Scrip Pad ($12, pictured above).
Eamon Rockey's drinks at Betony make use of all sorts of cocktail wizardry—oleo saccharum and orgeat are made in house—but don't go too crazy, instead employing these techniques in the service of perfecting cocktails. There's a fantastic pisco sour firmed up with Rockey's gum arabic syrup, and the insanely drinkable pilsner-based Desert Shandy pictured above, with apricot liqueur, orgeat, and sherry vinegar (pictured above; all cocktails $13).
I'm not sure what I like more: reading the names on Brian Bartels' cocktail menu (Awesometown, Population: You; You're Hired! And You Get A Raise!) or drinking what results. All of the Little Wisco restaurants (Jeffrey's Grocery, Montemartre, Chez Sardine, Joseph Leonard, Fedora) are fine places for a cocktail, but I find myself at Perla and Fedora the most. Recently, I've been drinking the Picasso Mojito (all drinks $13)—an apt name for a cocktail that takes apart the standard, with Branca Menta for a powerful mint rush and grapefruit and apricot to round it out.
Minetta Tavern's cocktails ($15) are as classy as the establishment itself, forward-thinking but nothing frilly. Well-made standards are a good bet here (there's no beating a Vieux Carré or Last Word), but their own creations are excellent, too. I'm a huge fan of the Murray Sour—a balanced, gently spiced Yamazaki 12 Year Whisky with cardamom-infused agave, lemon, and orange—and the White Lightning, a powerful union of mezcal and tequila plus Dolin Dry, Poire Williams, Luxardo, and Yellow Chartreuse.
It's a little cutesy, but I still love the conceit of the cocktail menu at Peels, with drinks dubbed Red, Orange, Yellow and so on (all $13). Blue and Indigo are close in color, but wildly different drinks, Indigo a tequila-St. Germain drink made lively by a vividly acidic currant shrub, and Blue a pisco-blueberry concoction with coconut water as an intriguing addition, giving it a mellow, almost creamy finish.
Salvation Taco could've gotten away with a few margaritas, but instead puts forward a smart cocktail program with a wide range of agave spirits and other Mexican-inspired elements. Don't miss the Sonora Old Fashioned (pictured above; all drinks $13), with both Pueblo Viejo blanco and bacanora, chili honey and grapefruit bitters completing the drink.
I loved Mat Resler's cocktail program at Empellón Cocina, but love Naren Young's brand-new list, too. While the signature cocktails are excellent, including the dry-as-a-bone La Perla ($13), with Partida reposado, orchard pear, and dry Manzanilla sherry, don't overlook the margarita section—it's just as creative, with results just as delicious. The Five Spiced Añejo ($15), in particular, is worth an order, warmed by five-spice honey and Dale DeGroff's pimento bitters along with lime and Paco Chicano Añejo tequila.
Saxon + Parole
Saxon + Parole has the sort of menu worth drinking your way down, where every cocktail sounds intriguing, on-trend but not overtly trendy—but too often I just go for the Champagne Negroni ($14), because, well, just look at it. Who could say no? It's worth taking a detour, however, for the celery gimlet or hibiscus pisco sour (both $14).
Lafayette is a tremendously civilized place to have a drink. Or a meal, or a pastry... but we're talking cocktails, here. Gin fans will appreciate the many herbal elements of the Astérix Elixir (left), the spirit shaken with Herbs de Provence, yellow Chartreuse, citrus, and egg white; whiskey fans, go for the Crochet Rouge, with rye, Bonal, Marashino, and Angostura and orange bitters (all cocktails $14). Guaranteed to smooth over the memory of any day you've been having.