WHERE BARTENDERS DRINK
By Adrienne Stillman
Phaidon, $29.95, 420 pages
The late, great Steve Allen was a true polymath: comedian, musician, composer and author. He may also have been a psychic. Decades before his death 17 years ago he warned of a coming menace. One shouldn’t allow children to mix drinks, he said, because, “It is unseemly and they use too much vermouth.” Steve must have seen them coming, that plague of trendy, usually very young bartenders dispensing the cloying, coyly named, odd-ingredients cocktails currently infesting so many of our trendy bars and cocktail lounges. The unthinkable dispensing the undrinkable, they have inflicted such horrors as the Chocolate Martini and the Kale-infused Bloody Mary, to name only two of their liquid Frankenstein monsters.
Fortunately, what cannot be prevented can be avoided. Food and drink writer Adrienne Stillman, while she acknowledges her own addiction to Silver Foxes (a labor-intensive catch-all of gin, orgeat, amaretto, lemon and egg white), has done a splendid job of compiling a Boozing Man’s Baedeker listing more than 700 bars, lounges, clubs and pubs around the world that dispense beer, wine and cocktails running the gamut of good, bad and ugly. The selection, drawn from field work by a team of 225 professional bartenders, is pretty catholic, helping drinkers of eerie taste and inclination find what they crave and avoid what they loathe.
Whatever your preference, you will be struck by how much the English language and American cocktails dominate the global market. This is only fair in a way; while England and the continent were familiar with punches, flavored schnapps, syllabubs and the like long before the birth of the United States, the modern cocktails — the mint julep being an early outlier — originated in the U.S. This is why many of the elegant older hotels in places like London and Paris still call their cocktail lounges “American Bars.” A splendid example of the latter, included in Ms. Stillman’s book, is the one in London’s Savoy Hotel on the Strand, “as intact and important and fantastic as it was in 1930. It is both timeless and contemporary.” Schumann’s Bar in Munich is another updated traditional that manages to combine contemporary sleek with ageless elegance.
It is amusing to note that Argentina, with its long-running love-hate affair with things English and American, has many a bar with a name that would be equally at home in Manhattan or the Shetland Islands. Buenos Aires boozeries listed in “Where Bartenders Drink” include “Pizzeria Kentucky,” “Frank’s Bar,” “The Harrison Speakeasy,” the “Plaza Bar” (in the hotel of the same name) and the “Doppelganger Bar” which presumably pours doubles and stocks a few German schnapps. A particularly egregious — or perhaps flattering — bit of cultural expropriation is Toronto’s “Fat City Blues Bar,” described as “New Orleans-inspired with late night food and a live jazz band … they make the best French 75 in the city. Also, one of the bartenders breathes fire.” Fairly or unfairly, it’s less surprising to learn of a New Orleans-inspired bar in Toronto than it would be to learn of a Toronto-inspired bar in the Big Easy.
If you favor the traditional over the trendy and the authentic over the ersatz, the “Cafe den Turk” in Ghent, Belgium, springs to mind. One of the oldest bars in a very old city, it is unassuming but “still … has something magical … the bar is full of regulars, and the bartender knows what they are having. You just enjoy your beer and order another and probably another because once you forget where you are, you are bound to lose track of time.” For those in search of the trendily pretentious, the ultimate destination may be the “Gen Yamamoto” in Tokyo, “an eight-seat bar, with only [the master dispenser] working … Do the menu course with five cocktails, super subtle tastes, and a big variation in texture.” Trying just a bit too hard to impress, perhaps; and how many “textures,” dangling somewhere between liquid and solid, does one look for in a cocktail?
At the other end of the spectrum is a recommendation in the South Indian city of Chennai (formerly Madras, of summer sports coat fame). Called “Tranquebar” — which was the name of a Danish trading colony in India from the 17th to the 19th century, but which sounds a lot like “Drink Bar” or, better yet, “Drunk Bar” — it is praised for being “chilled out and playful.” But there’s an even more compelling reason for recommending it. It is, we are told, “the only cocktail bar in Chennai.”
• Aram Bakshian Jr., an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, writes widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.
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