21 June 2007

When Diners Serve Cocktails

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.


GranolaHeadEsq said...

Before dismissing the entire industry with a "duh", why not develop both reasonable expectations and actually go to a diner. No, you will not find a high end cocktail as you might find at a high end restaurant. Of course the steak you will get at a diner will not be the same as you'd get at Kobe House.

The first error you made was by visiting a glorified lunch counter, not a diner. There are no diners in midtown, certainly not between Lexington and 8th Ave. Now if you went to Astoria, Rego Park, Williamsburg, or to any diner below 14th St (don't worry, these regions may be foreign to you but do not require a passport until at least September) you might find a free standing building, often with shiny siding, often owned by a Greek family: this is a diner. Now in one of these establishments, you can find a decent liquor-based accompaniment to a meal. While NY'ers may not sit around drinking cocktails at any hour of the day, they will often have such novel combinations as breakfast with a Bloody Mary on the side. This combination, in a very enjoyable form, can be found in diners. It may be a long hike, but I can suggest Pop Diner on queens blvd as one such establishment, and can confirm they serve a better Bloody than you will find in most establishments, and at a better price. This is a proper, thin, spicy tomato, celery sticked concoction. And it is quite good.

Who the hell would go to a diner and order a Manhattan or a martini? These drinks cannot even be made by your average bartender in any neighborhood other than one's catering to the octogenarian crowd, so why would you think a theater district lunch counter could handle it?

Anonymous said...

You have not discouraged me, next time I see a "cocktails" sign at a diner I am heading right in and ordering a big gin & tonic. This will happen day or night, during work or leisure hours.


Brooks of Sheffield said...

Deenutz: Octogenarians? Martinis, Manhattans and the like have been enjoying a resurgence in popularity for the past decade. They're drunk nightly by twentysomethings. Where have you been? And any bartender in any neighborhood who can't make them should resign in disgrace. They are two of the most enduring cocktails on records. I mean, JESUS, the Martini is the most famous and popular cocktail on the PLANET. My expectations WERE reasonable. Any place that advertises "cocktails" but can't make a decent Martini should not advertise "cocktails." Also, both the places I visited were owned by Greek families. (You're teaching me nothing about diners. I've lived in New York 20 years. I know a diner when I see it. And, dude, there are diners in midtown, whether you care to recognize them or not. The Westway is a major example.) And I know about below 14th Street. I used to live in the Lower East Side (before it was bastardized). You have provoked my interest in Pop Diner, though. I'll try to pay a visit.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

As for you Chris Buck, I am very happy I have not discouraged you. Bottoms up.