Robert Simonson's Guide to Rewarding Drinking
New York City is indisputably a cocktail town. It’s a city where cocktails start, finish and permeate a meal. Home of the three-martini lunch and the Bloody Mary. So many classics have been conceived here, too many bartenders went from ‘sort of well known’ to legendary here. And then there’s Robert Simonson, proudly erudite, fiercely private, fiercely mustachioed, drinking it all in. He changed the face of bar reviewing forever at Punch and the New York Times, and he’s the ultimate authority on cocktail culture not just in this city but the globe. He’s also a gem and happy to share his take on the NYC bar scene as it is today… Just don’t screw up his Manhattan.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Let’s start with your background—how you came to be reviewing bars and cocktails because there really doesn’t seem to be that level of criticism applied to the bar scene anywhere but New York.
Robert Simonson: When Punch approached me to be a contributing editor almost two years ago, they asked me what I wanted to do and I said, ‘I want to write bar reviews because no one does that, they just write about bars. They don’t treat them like restaurants and certainly, they are opened with the seriousness of any restaurant these days so they might as well be reviewed that way.’
Let’s go basic—what are the bars that are on your radar, especially downtown?
RS: Well, it’s funny. The older the cocktail movement gets, the more I gravitate towards the original ones. You know, the ones that did it really well because it seems like there’s a consistency there that you don’t always find in some of the new ones. Places like Attaboy, which was Milk and Honey and very much still has that aesthetic, Pegu Club, Little Branch, Death and Co., PTD; they remain solid. I like Mother’s Ruin for its more casual style. And I know that people go to bars for a lot of different reasons, but because I’m spoilt and used to having a very excellent cocktail, my nose gets out of joint when I don’t get that. So at all of these places, I know I’m safe. And the service is good and the atmosphere is good. As you know, though, we’re spoilt for choice, we have a great percentage of great bars, and you don’t have to worry about running out of good ones. That list that I just gave, if you go to another city, that list would be much shorter for that level of excellence.
I’ve been thinking about the short-term cocktail trends that could become almost movements. The trend that stuck out to me recently is low-ABV drinking…
RS: Yep, I certainly think that’s a trend that will continue. If you’d asked me two years ago, I’d have said it’d come and go, but it’s not going. Every cocktail bar and restaurant has a few selections for people who want to drink less or not drink at all. I mean, I feel, as far as the non-alcoholic drinks go, it’s sort of like veggie burgers—if you really don’t want to eat meat, don’t eat meat, so why are you trying to find a burger? And if you don’t want to drink alcohol, there’s a lot of other things to drink, so why do you have to have a mocktail? ’Cause it’s never gonna be that good.
Highballs definitely feel like they’ve had a moment; possibly still are?
RS: Yeah, I predicted that and tried to sell a book on them three years ago to my publisher saying, ‘Highballs—it’s gonna happen,’ and they said, ‘We don’t feel it, we don’t think so.’ They were wrong. And now I think they’ve missed the moment. And what’s going on now with Japanese Highballs—I love them and I’m fine with that trend.
Another trend you’ve possibly noticed is the mezcal thing. That won’t go away. It’s amazing the thirst people have for mezcal. It’s that spirit that they discovered, they learned about it, and they latched on and didn’t let go. They didn’t get bored. They love it. And they’re going to drink it till it’s all gone.
What do you think about bartenders; who do you like?
RS: Gosh, there are so many good ones. Over here [in Brooklyn] at Long Island Bar, there’s a bartender called Phil Ward. He was at Flatiron Lounge, then Pegu Club then Death and Co.. And then he had his own place, Mayahuel, which closed last year, which was the first important tequila and mezcal bar in NYC. It was on East 6th and 2nd Avenue in the East Village. So he’s a crusty old guy from Pittsburg, and I like him because he likes to bartend. A lot of bartenders once they get some success you don’t see them behind the bar much anymore. But he seems to genuinely like it, and so I know I’m going to see him when I go over to Long Island Bar, and no matter what I order from him, I’m going to get a great drink, and I’m going to get a good bartender experience because he doesn’t hold back, he doesn’t cater his personality to everyone, so I like him. I follow him.
All the bartenders at Attaboy are good, they’re skilled. Bartenders at Leyenda, Tom Macy at Clover Club. Some bars are good at attracting talent, so if a great bartender leaves, another good one tends to take over.
What drinks have popped out at you and you thought, ‘That’s not a classic but it could possibly be on the way to being a future classic?’
RS: That’s becoming harder and harder to find. Because there are so many original cocktails, so many bars, and so many bartenders, the chances of a new drink breaking out and becoming a modern classic have dropped precipitously. Some bars are so good at what they do, like Existing Conditions, there are so many drinks on that list that I just think are excellent, they won’t be replicated, though, because it’s too difficult to do.
Over at Long Island Bar, Phil Ward came up with a very simple martini variation. It’s gin, two kinds of Vermouth, the Bianco and the dry, and he lets it rest on Shiso leaves for like two minutes. He calls it a Beefsteak Martini. I love that drink. It’s not on the menu, you just have to know it’s there or ask Phil what he’s working on. Long Island Bar—it’s got this beautiful interior that’s frozen in time from the ’30s. It used to be a diner, and they do classics really well, a few modern twists. And the food’s good, too. It’s owned by a guy called Toby Cecchini who, for better or worse, invented the Cosmopolitan.
The key to any bar is understanding when to go. You have to figure out who you are as a person, what you like to drink, who you like to drink with and then you figure out, when do I go when that’s happening? So, I tend to go to bars early, I don’t stay at bars late because that’s not the scene I want. I like a little conviviality, not too much, I like to talk to the bartender a little bit and that’s it.
WORDS Willem Hock