On this spring Sunday, the young man controlling the door is exasperated, although it’s still daylight. He takes our information and sends us back onto the street. This stretch of St. Mark’s has a collegiate and unrefined persona, the sort of place one may venture with a fake ID for bottomless brunches and $4 beers–a stark contrast to PDT. No place else in the vicinity has a queue. We wait in a bar next door.
After the rigamarole of getting inside, the host shows Ryan and I to our seats. There are half-crescent leather booths and tables filled, but the bar here is primary focus: U-shaped, with generous seating, lined with square stools. The atmosphere is masculine, tight, all exposed brick and taxidermy; it’s like you’ve stepped into someone’s secret lair. The ceiling beams, mitered in different directions, catch a glare from the glowing backbar. Otherwise the space is dark. Ryan is uncomfortable beneath the taxidermy bear. Bear’s claws are out, open; he’s wearing a blue felt hat. Relocating two bar stools over requires special permission from the host.
The crowd is mixed: locals, tourists, couples, trios of friends; everyone’s casually dressed. The vibe feels sort of static; it’s misplaced community. Rifling through the pages-long barbook, we pore over the plastic-protected pages, drifting back and forth between choices. The cocktails are legendary; PDT was part of the upstroke in cocktail culture. Each drink is annotated with bits about the creator or the elements involved.
Ryan, a fellow beverage professional, asks for specifics between the Red Herring and the Red Velvet, torn between options. The bartender fires back answers with an air of dissociation, like an apprentice tired of his master’s creations.
I start with Skylark (Diablada Italia Pisco, Contratto Bitter, Imbue Bittersweet Vermouth, Kumquat, Green Cardamom). “The word Pisco comes from the native Quechuan word for bird; making it the ideal base for A-K’s bittersweet sip named after Johnny Mercer’s 1942 hit tune about a lovebird.” Served in a coupe, with a kumquat half, this semi-bitter delight is spirit forward and just right.Maybe better yet is the Mezcal Mule (Del Maguey Vida Mezcal, Lime Juice, Boiron Passion Fruit Puree, House Ginger Beer, Cucumber, Chili), which adds smoke and fire to the traditional mix. Very layered, there’s something savory here, almost sweet onion-like in flavor, backed by a little tingle, and cucumber on the nose. It’s garnished with cucumber and candied ginger. Ryan goes for the famed Benton’s Old Fashioned (bacon infused Four Roses bourbon, grade b maple syrup, Angostura bitters), though a neighboring patron (a self-proclaimed regular in sweat pants) tries to dissuade us. Another classic riff, the vanilla sweetness is easy going down. Bacon and maple give the cocktail a wholesome, comforting quality–if breakfast could be a beverage.
Between cocktails, we order food. Crif Dogs serves their carnival-casual fare to the patrons of this upscale speakeasy, and so must be taken advantage of. Tater tots come served in a foil cave. A paper boat filled with liquid cheese and chopped jalapeños on the side, the food here is proof that regardless of how transportive the atmosphere, you’re never too far from where you started.