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The Cocktail Revolution Has Finally Reached New York’s Great Cultural Institutions

Finding a good craft cocktail on the Upper West Side of Manhattan can be a challenge. But there’s a new bar in the area that checks all the boxes. If you like the classics, it serves a well-made Martini, Manhattan, Old Fashioned, and Daiquiri. If you go for modern classic cocktails, they have a Tommy’s Margarita and a Reverend Palmer, an old standby from PDT, the East Village icon. And if you like a creative twist on a classic, their house Negroni is made with gin, sorel, Campari, Aperol, and sherry.

The only problem with the place is its location, which may make it difficult to find for some barflies. No, it’s not a speakeasy with a hidden door. Rather, it’s hidden in plain sight: the Lobby Bar inside David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center.

Readers are forgiven for being skeptical of the above account. New Yorkers and tourists alike are accustomed to getting bad drinks at Gotham’s most famous locations. It’s been that way for decades. Tourist meccas like Lincoln Center and transportation hubs like Penn Station were places where drinks went to die. At the bars there, cocktails were few in number and typically terrible; the wine and beer selections were mediocre; and everything was expensive and prepared with a bare minimum of skill.

That sorry state of affairs is no longer the case. The cocktail revolution, which over the past 20 years has changed the way almost every bar and restaurant in the city thinks about adult beverages, has finally reached New York’s great cultural institutions and tourist destinations.

The cocktails at Geffen Hall are good because Lincoln Center tapped Don Lee, a veteran of PDT and Existing Conditions, to run the mixed drinks programs at every concession bar in the hall, as well as the much-lauded restaurant Tatiana. Those programs are overseen on a daily basis by another cocktail-world vet, Karin Stanley, who has also worked at Existing Conditions, as well as Suffolk Arms and Dutch Kills, among other places.

“I think it’s the times. As it gets harder to do business, with costs going up, you need something to help support that. And that includes food and drink.”

Lincoln Center isn’t the only city institution where cocktail culture is suddenly flourishing. Last fall, Jack McGarry, the co-founder of Dead Rabbit, opened the bar The Irish Exit in Moynihan Hall, instantly creating the best bar any New York City travel center had seen in decades. The new Perelman Performing Arts Center next to One World Trade is home to the Marcus Samuelsson restaurant Metropolis, where the cocktails are the work of Alexis Belton, who previously worked at the vaunted Aviary in Chicago. The New York Historical Society recently welcomed the restaurant Clara, a new venture from the Oberon Group, whose restaurants (Rucola, June) have long taken cocktails seriously.

Rockefeller Center has undergone the most seismic transformation of them all. In the past, eating and drinking options at the mammoth institution were dismal. Today, drinkers have a choice of several restaurant bars, all turning out expert concoctions. There is Jupiter from the team behind King in SoHo, which sells a Vesper tinged with fig leaf; Le Rock from the people who brought you Frenchette, where the cocktails are created by Estelle Bossy (Del Posto, Panorama Room); Lodi, an Italian-style café that serves an excellent Martini and several spritzes; and a new, larger uptown edition of Smith & Mills, the Tribeca cocktail stalwart.

“Personally, I think it’s because good drinks are mainstream now,” says McGarry. Though born in Ireland, McGarry has been a New Yorker long enough to know how rare a good drink used to be in Penn Station. “Back when I arrived, it was more fringe and more niche. A lot of people know what good drinks are now,” he says. The people running cultural institutions these days are “making sure they’re serving the consumers of today and not of bygone years.”

“It didn’t make sense to have the rest of the food and drink be just a throwaway. We have savvy people coming through our doors on a daily basis.”

Lincoln Center was a leader in this trend, but Rebecca Carey, its head of food and beverage, is hesitant to take credit for this en-masse movement toward better drinking at New York’s big halls.

“I would love to take the credit for it, but I don’t think it’s us,” she says. “I think it’s the times. As it gets harder to do business, with costs going up, you need something to help support that. And that includes food and drink.”

Stanley enjoys how patrons of the New York Philharmonic are pleasantly caught off guard when they order a drink at the Lobby Bar and get something delectable.

“The people who came to Existing Conditions were going for that destination,” she says. “When they come here, their priority is the art, what they’re coming to see. It’s a nice surprise to put something in their hand and they’re like, ‘Oh, this is good!’”

To Carey, it was just common sense to provide quality libations at a quality locale. She wanted to avoid what she called the “Broadway model of the captive audience,” where patrons accepted low standards because there was nowhere else to buy a drink.

“Tatiana is a shiny little jewel,” she says. “It didn’t make sense to have the rest of the food and drink be just a throwaway. We have savvy people coming through our doors on a daily basis.”

For McGarry, the audience at Moynihan Hall is more varied. Irish Exit serves everyone from business professionals traveling to D.C. and tourists to people going to concerts at Madison Square Garden and New York Rangers games.

“We’re serving people we would never get at Dead Rabbit,” he says. To satisfy such a diverse crowd, Irish Exit couldn’t be as experimental and epicurean in its offerings as Dead Rabbit. McGarry had to emphasize the proven hits that would resonate with commuters: Dirty Martini, Negroni, Cosmo, Espresso Martini, etc.

Both Metropolis and Smith & Mills, given their locations, serve a lot of business professionals. That means Martinis enjoy a prominent place on the menu. “It’s the Financial District,” says Belton. “That means the Martini crowd; businessmen at the end of the day.”

Robert Krueger, beverage director at Smith & Mills, has done his best to trim down the back and forth between bartender and barfly that is the norm at downtown cocktail bars. He describes his Rockefeller Center cocktail menu as having selections for someone who’s just getting off work and wants a drink. “There’s something on the menu like an Old Fashioned,” he says. “There’s not a need for a discussion. You like that kind of thing, here’s a thing for you.”

Nearly all the new cocktail bars, by virtue of their locations, are compelled to deal with rapid service during a compressed period of time. Things like rush hour and intermission are immutable and cocktails bars must adapt.

Irish Exit is open from 10 a.m. to midnight. But more than 50 percent of sales occur between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m., when people are catching their trains home. That means Martinis and Old Fashioneds are pre-batched and pre-diluted and stored in the freezer. “We really streamlined things and made sure everything took only two to three steps,” says McGarry.

“A big consideration was speed,” agrees Carey. “Thousands of people have the same 20-minute window to get a cocktail and consume it.” (Another unique issue for Lincoln Center is noise. Drinks brought into the concert hall in souvenir cups must be as quiet as the patrons. That means ice is a no-no.)

Stanley is pleased with the way the Lobby Bar has been received, both by guests and the workers and artists who spend their days at Lincoln Center. (Opera singers from the Met are frequent visitors.) She hopes that, with time, the bar will come to be seen not just as a way to get a good cocktail inside a cultural institution, but simply as a good bar, period.

“We want people to come here on purpose,” she says. “You’re always going to sell during that hour before the show. But this place is open eight other hours a day. And I think people are starting to realize that.”

The article The Cocktail Revolution Has Finally Reached New York’s Great Cultural Institutions appeared first on VinePair.

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