“Everyone here is on a date,” he says.
“You’re on a date,” I say.
This is our first date, and Middle Branch is our second stop. There are two levels–standing room only downstairs, with three island bars and a side rail, and an upstairs parlor with tables for two. The downstairs space is open and spare, three other couples and us. We order Pisco Sours. “Cocktails are the only way I take my eggs,” I tell my date.
The bartender pours two perfect drinks: high froth foaming over a lime green drink, angostura dashed on top. The cocktail is punchy and balanced, textured and satisfying, classic. My date has two in the time it takes me to finish one.
Together in the sublevel room, we are kissing, talking, whispering in one another’s ears. We’re making fun of the other couples, but also ourselves. We’re drunk. The door guy appears–he says we have to leave. When I question this, he says to my date, “Because you were rude to the bartender.”
She had made two good drinks, and we had told her so– “Wait, what?” There was some back-and-forth, but the doorman repeats himself, ejecting us.
Outside, astonished, I say, “What just happened?”
My date, speechless, holds open his hands.
FRIDAY, 11ish pm
Like West Village sister Little Branch, Middle Branch has a faceless exterior, no neon, discrete signage, just another building on E. 33rd Street. I meet Michelle at the gate. I’d thrown on a black-and-white sheer top over a black bralette and jeans, thinking myself casually assembled, inconspicuous, for an innocent return to the scene. What is it about getting kicked out of a place that lures one back?
Inside, everything seems changed: the doorman is different, the crowd lively and diverse: lots of couples, yes, but lots of loose suits, bridge and tunnel, still around after office hours. The bartender is also someone else–Michelle and I glance at each other.
“Hey Lizzie,” he says.
“We didn’t know you worked here, too.” I say, approaching. There’s a cinematic lull surrounding the bar; momentarily, he isn’t flooded with orders. He’s the same bartender who had served me alone at Little Branch, and here he is, smiling at me, asking what I’d like to drink.
Michelle and I page through the menu. Here, unlike at Little Branch, there are pages of cocktail options. She orders Blood & Sand (scotch, cherry herring, sweet vermouth, fresh orange juice, shaken and served up). Supposing I am on my best behavior, I order again, the Pisco Sour. Michelle and I trade sips; hers is silky and balanced; it tastes like a mature cherry coke.
The energy is good here, but the crowd is varied and weird. An influx of guests arrive and our bartender is joined by two others. It’s a big room when filled and we’re impressed with the agile creativity they exude into our drinks.
Round 2 is bartender’s choice. I’m going to stick with pisco, but we move away from the classic sour to something more complex. Frantic Atlantic (pisco, St. Germain, grapefruit, lime) is floral and citrus, a little bit bitter, super easy to drink. It’s served tall on crushed ice with a towering sprig of mint and a cherry.
Michelle had asked for something mezcal and bitter, and when I see him measuring Aperol into a jigger, I’m a little bit jealous. He slides our drinks across the bar, leaning in, he says to Michelle, “This is the Naked & Famous, with mezcal, aperol, lime and yellow chartreuse.”
“This is the one,” I say. “We know this cocktail.”
“This might be better than the one at the Happiest Hour,” Michelle says.
Oh, how the good things find us again.
But Michelle can’t stay for a third drink. Back at the bar, I tell our bartender, “I would like to stay here for another, but she’s leaving me.”
“You should stay,” the bartender says.
He introduces me to other guests at the bar and, without asking, makes everyone a round of cocktails. The unexplained beverage is bourbon based, with lime (possibly a Derby) and, I’m guessing, sweet vermouth. It’s exactly what I wanted without knowing. Later, lots and lots of water, and another shot of Cynar.