New York state of mind: operating a bar in the city that never sleeps

30 March, 2017 by
Paul Wootton

After years of taking itself very seriously the New York bar scene is learning to let its hair down a little, reports Paul Wootton.

“People are moving away from cocktails bars. Nobody is taking the mixology thing seriously anymore. It’s all about having a good time, about having fun.”

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Sean Muldoon, co-owner of the Dead Rabbit bar in New York, is explaining how the bar scene is shifting in the city.

As far as cocktails go, you’re more likely to encounter short lists of 10 classic drinks rather than large menus of technically complicated or overly intricate concoctions.

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“A lot of the newer bars are more about creating an experience rather than being cocktail bars,” he says.

His words are echoed by Aisha Sharpe, marketing manager in the US for VDKA 6100, but she thinks the industry still has a long way to go. She agrees bars should be about the experience.

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“I hope that comes back and the cocktail becomes less centre stage,” she says. “I think the bigger this industry gets, the more impersonal it becomes. It’s the personal touch that built the industry. To me that’s the most important aspect of hospitality. Right now, I think people get too concerned about the cocktail.”

Muldoon identifies a new wave of bars that put the customer experience at the forefront of what they do. Many of them are in Brooklyn. Such is the development going on in the borough, especially in Williamsburg, it’s now arguably a better place to take the pulse of New York’s hospitality scene than Manhattan.

He cites Extra Fancy, a seafood and cocktail bar in Williamsburg, as a good example of this new wave.

“They have a number of slushy machines out the back in summer,” says Muldoon. “That’s what I mean about not taking it too seriously.”

Manhattan is also loosening up a little. Neighbourhood bars like Mother’s Ruin on Spring Street ooze charm, striving to be inviting rather than intimidating. Of course some well-known established bars have always been a bit loose. Employees Only in the West Village is a bar predicated on fun. It’s interesting that after 12 years, a long lifetime in the bar sector, it’s still going strong. That tells its own story.

If there is a change in the New York bar sector’s attitude, then Attaboy could be the embodiment of that change. The bar owned by Sam Ross and Michael McIllroy emerged in the small space that once housed Milk & Honey, the legendary bar that spawned a thousand speakeasy-style venues across the world, with its house rules, disguised entrance and bartenders dressed like they’d stepped out of The Untouchables movie.

Milk & Honey was of its time, even ahead of its time, but after 13 years it made sense for Attaboy to update the concept – and to move with the times. So the door policy has relaxed, as has the playlist and the bartenders’ dress code.

“The craft has not changed, the attention to detail has not changed,” Sharpe explains. “But all the waxed moustaches and the suspenders have gone now.”

The example of Attaboy illustrates a key piece of advice Sharpe offers to the bar community.

“Take the craft seriously but don’t take yourself seriously,” she says. “And the same should go for brands. This is booze. We’re celebratory. Let’s ease up a little.”

The world has become smaller and the internet means there are fewer surprises in store when you explore a city on the other side of the planet. But New York still has heaps of inspiration to offer anyone involved in the hospitality scene.

Fit-outs in particular are often spectacular and characterised by amazing attention to detail. That’s not to say they’re all huge venues – far from it. In fact, there’s been a real trend for smaller neighbourhood bars – and maybe that goes hand in hand with a move back towards genuine hospitality and away from pure theatre and showmanship. Of course, whatever kind of bar operators are running run in New York – big, small, fun, serious – the recent election result is likely to mean good business. Everyone there is going to need a drink. Or three.

Five new(ish) New York venues to set your pulse racing

BlackTail

Only a few months old, this homage to Cuba during American Prohibition oozes class and has the attention to detail you’d expect from the team that also owns the Dead Rabbit. It’s named for the fleet of private planes, aka the Highball Express, which flew wealthy Americans to Cuba during Prohibition.

NoMad

One of Sean Muldoon’s two favourite New York bars, the other being Maison Premiere. Open since 2012, NoMad is jaw-droppingly good-looking – a cross between a gentleman’s club and a drawing room in Versailles. Drinks are good but the food is better – Muldoon recommends the “exceptional” carrot tartare.

Mother’s Ruin

Despite its name, it’s not another gin-oriented bar, just a great laid-back neighbourhood venue serving good drinks and comforting bar food. Daily slushies, waffle fries, craft beer and cosy lamps that make everyone appear angelic rather than ruined. Or maybe that’s the booze.

Dante

Caffe Dante originally opened in 1915, but Australians Linden Pride and Naren Young relaunched it as Dante last year, a modern take on the classic Italian caf, with a focus on aperitif drinks and a menu of Negronis. Light, bright and buzzing, it’s the epitome of your favourite neighbourhood bar.

Sauvage

A new bistro and bar in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, from the owners of Maison Premiere, Sauvage takes its design cues from fin-de-siecle European cafes. The furniture and art nouveau lamps are all handcrafted and the impressive back bar focuses on small family-run spirits and liqueurs producers. A real gem.

This article was originally published in Bars & Clubs magazine.