Contrary to its all-nighter reputation, New York sleeps just fine. Unlike a Berlin or Barcelona, it takes some determination to hear the cockcrow with your last cocktail.
That determination came from The Drive’s senior editor Max Prince: Fresh off the boat from Michigan, a bar-hopping tour of his new home was a must. For an automotive red carpet, we settled on the lambswool rugs of a Rolls-Royce Ghost Series II. This $390,000 hunk of British bombast—cumulus soft, starlit within, linked to the heavens via a satellite-aided transmission and twin-turbo V12—definitely beats the double-decker sightseeing buses of the Gray Line, greasy with tourists and leftovers from Ray’s Pizza.
The Ghost Series II is also helping drive Rolls-Royce to record sales, thanks in large part to emerging markets in the East. Thus, Prince added a parvenu wrinkle that churned my stomach before the first coating of half & half: White Russians shall be consumed at every stop.
So that was the evening’s recipe: equal parts vodka, coffee-flavored Kahlua and cream (or milk in a pinch). A drink spun off from the simpler Black Russian. One that, considering its pure pop deliciousness, might find a corollary in Neil Diamond: A Seventies and Eighties superstar, reduced to a cheesy punch line, but one day reconsidered and its reputation restored. Or not.
With West Coast editor Chris Cantle as designated driver and recalling the Bronx as up and the Battery down, it was time to hit the town like Kahlua-swilling bourgeois. Prince hummed Stravinsky to himself. Disturbingly, the thing was starting to make sense.
484 Union Ave., Brooklyn
I figure we’ll down our first dairy treat at Clover Club in Cobble Hill, perhaps Brooklyn’s leading practitioner of the cocktail art. But with Cantle staying at a hotel in the Hasidic Jewish section of Williamsburg, I chauffeur the boys to nearby Union Pool for an immersion in another close-knit, uniform-clad community: Hipsters, in the Brooklyn nabe that pretty much invented the modern, at times insufferable version and exported its selvedge-wearing, beard-oiling ethos around the world. Located in a former pool supply store, Union Pool is a shambling rock club that features indie bands, but unfortunately, no milk or cream to kick off our White Russian tour. Our request for such a passé, uncool cocktail draws the first of various looks from bartenders—mystified, amused, sour as the forgotten quart at the back of the fridge. We order appropriately branded beers, and all is right in the Williamsburg world. With a nostalgic goth soundtrack of Bauhaus and Siouxsie setting the mood, we armor our stomachs with tasty Mexican from El Diablo, the neon-deviled taco truck permanently parked in Union Pool’s interior courtyard. Piling back into the Rolls, Prince locates the jewel-like cigarette lighter in the back seat. Unlike an actual owner, he lights up outside the car and doesn’t bark at the chauffeur.
91 South 6th St., Brooklyn
Looking like the inside of a Sixties Scandinavian hi-fi (low ceiling, blond mid-century furniture and Louisiana-style sister restaurant next door), Loosie Rouge tosses off an effortlessly hip vibe that probably takes Pentagon-level planning to pull off. According to the New Yorker, “For some, becoming a regular at Loosie Rouge is the latest mark of truly making it. Started in April by four friends, each his own flavor of scruffy hipster, the place has already been blessed by the cool kids.” Despite the model-pretty, check-their-ID clientele, the place is surprisingly warm and neighborhood-y as we wander in, after parking the Ghost in the Scorcesian nethers of the Williamsburg Bridge that looms above the bar. There’s a piano in a corner that supports rock karaoke nights, and I find myself vamping along to Warren G’s old-school hip-hop. The head bartender hails from Daniel, one of New York’s three-Michelin-star temples. But his acolytes fairly grimace when we order White Russians. Our first Russki of the night is (unsurprisingly) terrible, like Dunkin’ Donuts coffee with skim milk. Ironic drink orders clearly not appreciated. Next time, we’ll order the Loosie’s Cup, a punch-like concoction with Pimms, Aquavit, grapefruit and cucumber juice, rhubarb syrup and celery bitters.
34 Avenue B, New York
Time for Manhattan. Cantle guides the stately Roller across the Williamsburg Bridge and into the East Village. We’ve been tempted to park the Rolls in front of some dive, tell patrons we work for Goldman Sachs and watch the sparks fly, but find no spots for conspicuous consumption. Mama’s is just such a dive, a lovable joint with castoff furniture, a Buck Hunter video game and a loose DJ vibe that reliably gets people dancing despite a space the size of a Twister mat. Our straight-shooting woman bartender improvises a vegan White Russian with soy milk. It’s actually not bad, stronger and better than the one at Loosie Rouge. But perhaps the Rolls-Royce scent is rubbing off after all; with zero provocation, an angry young woman starts accusing us of being rich, then boring and old when we won’t pick up her tab for a round of shots. This aggression will not stand, man. Time to leave.
Otto’s Shrunken Head
538 E. 14th St., New York
In 1993, Donald Trump closed the famous Trader Vic’s in his Plaza Hotel. He called the Tiki bar “tacky,” from its Pu Pu platters to kitschy décor, which included an outrigger canoe from Marlon Brando’s Mutiny on the Bounty. (Trump should know from tacky). Painkiller, a more-recent, underground South Pacific wonder on the Lower East Side, is also gone. That leaves Otto’s to serve up Mai Tais with equally potent rock-and-roll. Tonight’s latitude being Siberian rather than Polynesian, our tattooed female bartender improvises a milk-free White Russian that’s the best we’ve had so far, though closer to a B52. That’s followed by a round of my favorite Otto’s drink, the gin-based Suffering Bastard. The Rolls has suffered too, tiptoeing a 2.5-ton path through scarred city streets, forced to mingle with taxis and garbage heaps, slumming all the way despite the breathtaking gentrification of Brooklyn and downtown Manhattan. Time for something more befitting the Rolls’ station.
King Cole Bar
St. Regis Hotel
2 E 55th St., New York
The Meatpacking District’s Boom Boom Room is trendier. But the old money is on the King Cole Bar, the swanky midtown joint where drinkers still get lost in the Maxfield Parrish mural that’s hung over the bar since 1932. (The King Cole-themed artwork first graced the now defunct Knickerbocker Hotel in 1906). The bar also makes a convincing argument to having invented the modern Bloody Mary. Our Rolls parks magisterially before the flagged-and-spotlighted St. Regis Hotel, but alas, the bar closed at 1 a.m. We get a lesson in human assumptions, the difference between pulling up in a new Rolls or a battered Hyundai. I ask to use the bathroom. Instead of telling me to get lost, a St. Regis employee replies “But of course, sir,” escorts me to the john, and urges me to return and request his assistance another night.
On the Rocks
696 10th Ave., New York
Midtown Manhattan is mostly a dead zone for worthwhile bars. It’s top-heavy with indifferent hotel lounges and Disneyfied tourist traps that range from Red Lobsters to Guy Fieri’s abominable, 500-seat outhouse of American cuisine. On the Rocks is the kind of hidden gem you hope the frat bros won’t discover and ruin, as they stagger like zombies beyond Times Square: A brick-walled, dimly lit, serious whiskey joint at the desolate fringe of Midtown and Hell’s Kitchen. No gimmicks, just great drinks. I’m hoping it lives up to my lavish billing, and it does. The White Russian tour reaches a Tolstoy climax. Our friendly, ultra-professional bartender doesn’t even blink, but whips up a variation on the spot, blending bourbon, freshly brewed coffee and Godiva liqueur. Alright, so it’s not a White Russian per se, but it sends us home on a flavor high. That is, after a subsequent round of textbook Manhattans. We invite the bartender and his friend to hop into the Ghost parked outside. They’re duly blown away, first by the billionaire’s den and then the 563 horsepower, which Cantle gleefully shows off down a desolate 9th Avenue.
Sun is nearly kicking down morning’s door when we make it back to Brooklyn around 5 a.m., though my timeline has grown foggy. (Hey, I’m the old man of this group, and I need my sleep.) A few hours later, when I finally drag my ass out of bed to hunt down coffee, showered but shattered, I can’t help but wonder how Prince is feeling...