I've always been curious about the New York City diners that, in addition to the usual breakfast, lunch and dinner, advertise cocktail service on their signs or awnings. Who would order a mixed drink at a hash joint? I have to imagine that the greasy spoons who do persist in this sideline are on the ancient side, harking from an era when New Yorkers drank cocktails all the time and every place.
But could the drinks actually be decent? Common sense would say: definitely not. But I wanted to know for sure, so the other day I tested a few of the diners that stocked liquor behind the cash register (and it's always behind the cash register, kids).
I started with the Palace Restaurant on 57th Street near Lexington. It's been there for years. Your basic diner, but a bit fancier and cleaner, due to the neighborhood. "Cocktails" is emblazoned on the awning, right next to "Dinner." I decided to keep it basic and not test them too much; I ordered a Martini.
Now before I get into the awful details, let me point out the one positive aspect of diner cocktails: the price. The Palace Martini was $6.50. The Manhattan I subsequently ordered at the Flame Restaurant across town was $5.75. You try to get those drinks for that price at a high end Manhattan bar or restaurant.
Now, the first warning sign that this would not be the best Martini of my life was the startled look on the waiter's face when I ordered it. Obviously, people didn't go for the Palace's liquor cabinet very often. The cash register was a distance from the counter where I sat, so I had to watch him make the drink from a remove. He had some trouble finding the cocktail shaker and later couldn't locate the olives; more signs that this was not a steady practice.
I specified Tanqueray gin, having seen it on the shelf. I think I got a little of it in my drink, because I saw the guy lift a green bottle. But last time I checked, a Martini had two liquid ingredients (gin, vermouth), and I saw the contents of three different bottles make a contribution to my cocktail. I concluded that I got a dash of Tanqueray, a lot of some cutrate rotgut gin, and a health dose of Vermouth. It was the wettest Martini I've ever had. I got through half of it, but could do no better.
Next stop was the Flame Restaurant on Ninth Avenue a few blocks south of Lincoln Center. Again, the sign advertised "Cocktails," between "Dinner" and "Steaks." I sat at the counter again, but closer to the liquor shelves. My waiter was surprised by my request for a Manhattan, but not as much as the Palace help had been. The diner owner himself went to work. He knew where the shaker was, though he needed to apply some elbow grease to pry the spoon away from the strainer.
I realized something at this point: never trust a bar that doesn't stock bitters. All these diners had gin, vodka, whiskey, etc, but nary a tiny bottle. Not even the omnipresent Angostura. Why did this occur to me? Because only two things went into my Manhattan: some sort of brown liquor and vermouth. A proper Manhattan is topped off with Angostura. So already it's not a Manhattan. What the brown liquor was is hard to say. A true Manhattan is made with rye, though many you get today are made with Bourbon. This was made with Corby's, a brand I have never heard of which only explains itself as "American Whiskey." Uh.
I'll say this: the Manhattan was better than the Martini, but not by much. I had planned to go from the Flame to the Olympic Diner on Eighth Avenue in the Theatre District to try their cocktails. But I had lost heart at this point and couldn't bear more swill.
My conclusion couldn't easily be filed under "Duh": don't order cocktails in diners. But sometimes you just have to find out for yourself.