We Drank New York: Crawling through the Lower East Side

Since I returned from New York last November, I’ve had a couple of people ask me if I was going to write a travelogue. This shocks me. This means there are at least a couple of people that visit this dog and pony show and read whatever dreck spews through my fingers. To that, I thank you.

The request also gave me pause. Travelogue pieces built around New York are in constant danger of turning into the same line-item tourist guide highlighting the same usual suspects everyone knows about. There’s absolutely zero need for me urging you to visit the Empire State Building or Central Park – you know about them already, and if you don’t know about those places by now, shame on you. I also probably don’t need to tell you about some of NYC’s secondary points of interest like The High Line or Eataly. They’re not exactly obscure, either.

What you may not know about, however, is the depth of drinkable lunacy that is the Lower East Side bar scene. It’s bonkers in the best way possible – magic by the glass. My wife and I have shared our New York exploits with lots of people since we’ve returned; when we do, our Lower East Side bar crawling escapades always dominate a healthy chunk of the discussion. If I’m being completely honest, it’s the reason we’re probably going back to the city sooner than later.

Because I’ve gotten inquiries about a travelogue, and since my wife and I can’t help but effusively gush about drinking our way through the Lower East Side, it only makes sense to marry the two, especially since the latter element doesn’t require any obvious point of interest rehashing. What follows is a first-hand guide on how you can partake in a Lower East Side bar crawl should you decide to visit the area. Which you should if you ever find yourself in the Big Apple.

A couple of things to consider as you read. This is not a comprehensive crawl per se. There’s a staggeringly huge amount of watering holes in the Lower East Side – some would argue too many. Even if you strip away the dive bars of ill-repute and hone in on the good stuff, you’ll quickly realize it’s impossible to hit all the places you’re supposed to hit in a few days. The crawl I’ve come up with is just a hybrid of the two bar crawls we did on our New York getaway, fused into one adventure, and recalculated for efficiency’s sake. If you already dig the Lower East Side, and I missed your favorite spot, it’s just because it didn’t end up on our agenda. Secondly – and this is important – what follows may not be for the faint of heart or liver. If you have trouble holding your liquor, you’ll probably want to break this beast into two smaller crawls like we did.  Finally, keep in mind that cocktail menus are constantly in flux, so there’s a decent chance the beverages mentioned won’t be available during your crawl. This isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things. Whatever you order at these venues will provide you with exceptional drinks made by outstanding people.

Now, the first thing you’re going to want to do before you embark on a night of cocktail goodness is to load up on a hearty meal. It’s all about that base. Without it, you may turn into a buzzing bee or worse much quicker than you’d like. However, at the risk of sounding contradictory if not hypocritical, you won’t want to completely gorge yourself. You will be sneaking in bites throughout your crawl, starting at your very first stop, Bar Goto.

Bar Goto has a soft, golden sheen to its wood-dominant interior, giving it a strangely beautiful elegance. It also has a staff that can break down Japanese whiskey, sake, and other Far East libations with the kind of down-the-rabbit hole proficiency exhibited by hardcore Scotch geeks. When we’re here, our barkeep Chris whips out a gorgeous bottle of Nikka Coffey Grain Whiskey and gives us an off-the-cuff lesson on the history of Japanese Coffey stills. It’s an impromptu discussion that’s as pleasing as it is enriching. He also whips up an Ume Fizz; a highball made with Japanese plum brandy, Mirabelle plum, and soda. It’s one of several Asian-inspired highballs on the menu, and it’s delicious. It works because it features just enough Far East nuance to create depth without hitting you over the head with inspirational origin. The Asian influence is also all over the food menu, and they don’t dumb down its authenticity, something perhaps best exemplified by their numerous iterations of okonomiyaki (aka Japanese pancakes). You’ll be glad you saved room for an extra bite or two.

Your next stop will be at a place called Nitecap. You’ll walk right by the corner where the Beastie Boys shot the cover of their landmark album “Paul’s Boutique,” so find the mural marking the spot, take a photo or two, and then proceed to the route. Nitecap is decidedly different than Bar Goto: Its darker, tighter, and carries no polish. It’s not a dive by any means, but there is some old-school Lower East Side dank in its DNA. This is a feature, not a bug.  Besides, the choose-your-own-adventure vibe coming from the menu can brighten up a blackout. You have punchbowls for group fun and boozy slushies for silliness. You have burly concoctions that would terrify the average slushy drinker. They have easy apertifs, including a sherry-based drink on draft. At the heart of the menu are a gaggle of very complex yet easy-drinking beverages like the Chaotic Neutral, a liquid bugbear of rum, raspberry brandy, red bell pepper, and lime juice with a smoked salt rim. I order the drink because of the D&D reference. After one sip, I know I rolled a twenty. There are tables here, but wait for a spot at the bar and ask for Blake if he’s there. He knows his shit.

When you’re done here, walk two blocks north and drop in at Suffolk Arms and re-build your base with an order of Thai chili wings or disco fries (think poutine sans cheese curds). This place isn’t just a stop for grub, though – the bar program is partially a storehouse of New York drinking history, as libations stemming from venues gone by dot the menu, proper acknowledgements given. I’m not sure what I want when we squirm our way into a spot at the bar, so I give our bartender the “dealer’s choice” option. He responds with a bourbon-based cocktail that originated at Milk & Honey, the now-shuttered spot that once was the indisputable epicenter of the craft cocktail universe. I’m completely honored. As I polish off the beverage, I’m also completely satisfied.

The next stop is Subject, and it’s not that far at all. In fact, it’s right next door from Suffolk Arms. The space is bright, the cocktails are easygoing, and the staff moves like they’re on fast forward. This latter part is the main reason to stop here. When you order your drink – and you can order anything from a sophisticated scotch cocktail to a local craft beer and a shot – take a moment to watch the staff hustle. The trio behind the bar when we’re there are whirs of kinetic energy, handling orders, pouring drinks, carrying boxes of inventory to the back room, keeping things clean, and handling unjustifiably surly customers – all with a happy, smiling attitude. It’s exhausting and exhilarating to observe, and it provides the best example of how perpetual the motion of a Lower East Side bartender can be on a busy night. Which is to say, every night.

When you’re done eyeballing the action, you’re going to walk about a half-mile to get to Attaboy. This is where the bar crawl gets tricky. Attaboy is a speakeasy, and there are no signs, storefronts, or sandwich boards alerting you of its presence. All you’ll see is a drab gray door festooned with stickers cryptically arranged to read “AB145.” Knock on this door and wait. You can wave if you wish – the staff will see your gesticulations through the camera quasi-hidden above the door frame. The door will open, and a person will inform you that the place is packed. This will occur without exception, but don’t fret. Just give the messenger your number and they’ll call or text you when a spot is open. This “hiccup” gives you plenty of time to head four blocks north and plop down at Boilermaker while you wait.

Boilermaker is a sophisticated dive bar with West Coast roots. One of its founders is Erick Castro, the brilliant bar man that runs San Diego’s sleekest watering hole, the James Beard-nominated Polite Provisions. Here, he’s swaps Polite’s shiny Art Deco style for a dark, sports bar vibe that feels a little dirty despite being completely clean. The person in your entourage picking up the tabs will notice drink prices here are lower than elsewhere. The metalhead in your group will instantly spot the cocktails named after songs by Slayer, Anthrax, and Deafheaven, but you don’t have to be a headbanger to enjoy what they bring to a glass. The drinks here are indeed good, but the burger they serve is fantastic and deserves to be the last food item you devour on your excursion. I’m told this by a couple of bartenders during our adventure, with one of them rattling off a few of the accolades it’s received by publications like Thrillist. I heed their advice, and I regret nothing. The first bite produces an aggressive sploosh of juice from the burger’s back end, completely saturating the waxy paper wrapping below. It’s as tasty as it is messy. Scratch that – it’s damn near transcendent. The key to its excellence is “Jeepney’s Atchara,” a generous heap of Filipino-style pickled veggies that make their way here from Jeepney, Miguel Trinidad’s popular Filipino gastropub located a few blocks up the road. The pile’s nuanced acidic sweetness wonderfully plays off the perfectly cooked meat, creating a burger of remarkable depth. I’d like to say the only thing missing from the experience is a track from “Among the Living” playing overhead, but the alt and indie rock playlist our bartender Sam spins during our stay is righteous enough to nullify my quibble.

If you’re still polishing off your burger when Attaboy gets back to you, don’t worry – they’ll hold your spot as long as you don’t lollygag. When you return to the clandestine venue, the drab gray door will open to reveal a compact black rectangle demurely brightened by soft, elegant light. The bar will be stuffed with patrons, but they won’t be crammed, giving you sufficient space to maneuver into the spot you’ve waited for so patiently. Once you’ve nestled into your spot, enjoy a drink and soak in the ambience. Because it’s a speakeasy, the only other thing I’m going to tell you about this spot is that it springs from cocktail royalty – Milk & Honey formerly occupied the address. Everything else I could possibly tell you about the spot would be a spoiler, and nobody likes spoilers. You’re going to have to see the rest for yourself.

What I can tell you about is your last bar crawl stop: Amor y Amargo. Be forewarned: the place is the size of a broom closet, and it may feel like you’re playing the group version of Seven Minutes in Heaven at 9:00 PM on a Friday night. The crowd will have hopefully thinned out a smidge by the time you roll in, but even if it hasn’t, stick and stay. The throng of people are justified, especially if Sother Teague is behind the bar. Yes, he gets the full name treatment. First off, it’s difficult to forget a name that unique, and if you do, his bright red glasses may etch into your memory bank instead. Secondly, he’s a known commodity – Wine Enthusiast named Sother 2017’s Mixologist of the Year, even though I’m sure he’d prefer the award swapped out the word “Mixologist” for “Bartender.” But his skills aren’t solely memorable because fancy awards call for extra attention. Amor y Amargo specializes in drinks emphasizing cocktail bitters and brooding spirits like amaro, which is fitting since the venue’s name is Spanish for “love and bitter.” There aren’t any juices or sodas behind the bar, but they’re not needed here. They’d interfere with Sother’s ability to create well-balanced drinks that organically express complex, nuanced flavors without compromising the integrity of the base spirit. His ability is evident with my first drink, the Renaissance Man: an earthy, smoky vixen built on amaro, mezcal, and two apertifs, bound together by yuzu bitters. It’s also clear in his letter-perfect negroni. It will be present in any drink he makes you.

When you’re done, it will be time to hail a cab, order an Uber, or slog to the subway station and stumble onto the M train. I shouldn’t have to tell you not to drive, because you’re in New York and you shouldn’t have rented a car in the first place. However, I should again remind you that if you think the amount of tippling on this extensive bar crawl is above your pay grade, please pick and choose a few spots on the list instead of making it a “challenge accepted” kind of thing. If you listen to what your body is telling you, you’ll be feeling happy at the end of the night, but not too happy. You’ll have the food you nibbled on along the way to thank for that.

When you wake up the next day, you should probably see the Empire State Building, Central Park, or some touristy point of interest. But I’m guessing you know that already.