City Guides: The best bars in New York

As we continue our journey to the best bar city in the world, local journalist Layla Khoury-Hanold investigates New York

New York City consistently upholds its trendsetter reputation but what’s unique to its contributions lies in its inherent diversity. There are so many great cocktail bars with different styles, atmospheres and programmes, so narrowing down this list to just 10 was quite a challenge.

The overall shift is a more democratic and inclusive approach to drinking in New York. The best parts of the ultra-refined mixology bars are trickling down to regular bars and restaurants without any of the perceived stuffiness – in fact, a decent drinks programme is a prerequisite to being taken seriously and staying competitive. And vice-versa, bars are taking cues from restaurants to offer enticing bites.

Bars are much more focused on comfortable hospitality but the places that do it best don’t compromise on the drinks. Neighborhood bars and restaurants are taking small steps to better drinks – you don’t have to go to a temple of mixology to get a decent Manhattan. “I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to be able to order a pitch-perfect Negroni before dinner,” says Pouring Ribbons’ Joaquín Simó.

There’s an increased prevalence of innovative drink services, such as bottled, barrel-aged and draft cocktails. Restaurants are following suit and in some cases they’re even paving the way for more widespread adoption. Gastropub Alder allocates three of its six taps to draft cocktails. Beverage director Kevin Denton says: “Draft cocktails allow us to make consistent, outstanding drinks that can be poured at the same time as a beer.” 

Another key factor in delivering top-notch hospitality lies with the staff – and there’s never been so much talent in this city. The fact that bartending is viewed as a legitimate profession means staff are more invested and dedicated, resulting in better business and, ultimately, a better experience for the customer. That’s something we can all drink to. Here’s where you should do so in New York.

Pouring Ribbons, 225 Avenue B, New York

Pouring Ribbons

Pouring Ribbons is not a speakeasy – it’s a local bar that offers delicious drinks and warm hospitality. Ingredients are of the utmost importance but it’s the guest’s experience that’s put on a pedestal, and we – as New Yorkers and an industry – are all the better for it.

The ‘drink matrix’ maps the 15 house and 15 classic cocktails (rotating two to three times a season) along a Cartesian plane, from Refreshing to Spirituous and Comforting to Adventurous. A shining example of the range is the perennial favourite Death & Taxes, featuring locally-made Dorothy Parker gin and a marriage of juniper, hibiscus, elderberry and citrus notes, amplified by house-made grapefruit bitters and lavender-infused Cinzano Bianco.

The Dead Rabbit, 30 Water Street, New York

Dead Rabbit

One year in and The Dead Rabbit Grocery & Grog, a mid-19th century-style drinking saloon in a landmarked building downtown, has won just about every award in the biz. 

It’s been so successful because it’s telling a New York story – how the Irish integrated into New York society – and has created a bar that is very New York in its ethos, welcoming people from all walks of life with warm staff, tasty snacks and a lengthy list of hit cocktails.

Its new Parlor menu celebrates two things: Irish whiskey (more than half of the 72 drinks feature it) and John Morrissey, who was the leader of The Dead Rabbit gang. It gives an accurate portrayal of his life summarised under eight sections: Fresh, Fiery, Sharp, Strong, Low-Spirited, Bitter, Ambitious and Cultivated. 

No matter what you order, you’ll be mesmerised by the military speed and precision with which drinks are whipped up and the encyclopedic knowledge of the bartenders should you fancy something off-menu, such as the Devil’s Share I enjoyed on a recent visit. 

But Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry are not ones to rest on their laurels. “Consumers in New York are discerning and get bored very quickly, so it’s important to keep them and our staff captivated and keep the bar as current as possible. Once you let up in New York you are as good as done.”

PDT, 113 St Mark’s Place, New York


PDT is a perfect example of a bar that has managed to remain relevant (and busy) and is a shining beacon of a well-done speakeasy-style bar. As people in the business know and head bartender Jeff Bell affirms, a lot of that success is owed to general manager and master mixologist Jim Meehan and the hard-working staff. “It is crucial to have a hard-working, loyal staff and we have just that. Because we have great staff who work hard we are able to consistently serve our seasonal cocktails that evolve as the years move on. Also, the phone booth doesn’t hurt.”

The 18-deep seasonal menu means whiskey, Cognac, aged rum and genever cocktails are more prevalent in the colder months and lighter spirits such as vodka, tequila, gin, light rum and aquavit fall into focus during spring and summer. 

Death & Co, 433 E 6th St, Manhattan

Death & Co

The East Village is one of the most densely populated bar neighbourhoods with seriously stiff competition all around. Death & Co deserves a spot on this list because it changed the way New Yorkers look at cocktail menus and to this day continues to put out a world-class menu in a dizzying array of categories – 54 drinks in all.

The quarterly menu – changed according to the season, new products and trends – keeps both guests and bartenders on their toes. The process is collaborative, one where egos are checked at the door and no corners are cut. “We all present our ideas and specs of drinks to each other then critique it as a team until it’s perfect,” says current head bartender Jillian Vose.

Owners David Kaplan and Alex Day have taken their winning formula to Death & Co’s brand new sister bar, already an insider favourite. Vose says: “It does cheeky things such as Bamboos on tap, shorty beers and sherry, Fernet and cokes, and some bad-ass cocktails.”

Maison Premiere, 298 bedford Ave, brooklyn,

Maison Premiere, an oyster house and cocktail den in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, gets my vote for most charming bar. But in this town you can’t be all style and no substance. The tightly knit and passionate team has put together a top-notch concept. Its food is of the highest quality and its drinks – anchored by speciality absinthe cocktails – are among the best in the city.

Taking inspiration from the absinthe cafes of late 19th/early 20th century New Orleans, Maison Premiere has brought absinthe back to life as it was enjoyed back then, and has set about educating consumers on this category. 

For traditionalists, there’s a proper absinthe drip with some 20 varieties to sip on. For those seeking an introduction, Absinthe Colada, a twist on the classic Pina Colada, courts the trademark anise flavour alongside more familiar flavors.

Maison Premiere is a trendsetter on the food front too. After opening three years ago, it’s seen oysters become a part of almost every newly opened restaurant and bar in New York. According to bar director Maxwell Britten: “Oysters are becoming more associated with imbibing and a sense of atmosphere.”

Golden Cadillac, 13 First Ave, New YorkGolden Cadillac

One of the latest challengers on the scene is Golden Cadillac, a sexy 70s disco den in the East Village. When you think about how much influence 1970s New York had on the world – the grit of DGBG, the glitz of Studio 54 and the birth of hip hop – it was about time the decade was not only feted, but properly toasted. 

“The Golden Cadillac finds a marriage between serious cocktails and an environment that doesn’t take itself too seriously,” owner Greg Boehm says.

But how do you elevate retro drinks to serious cocktail status? If you’re beverage director Don Lee, you respect the fun-loving spirit of the era but ditch the cloying sweetness so many of those 70s classics fell victim to. I recommend getting your dance on during the monthly 70s Sundays with a Disco Daiquiri in hand. It’s made with overproof rum, fresh lime juice and sugar, and garnished with its own disco ball.

The beauty of Golden Cadillac is that it doesn’t matter if you grew up in the 70s or not – it’s a really fun bar with great drinks, and that’s something everyone can appreciate.

Dutch Kills, 27-24 Jackson Ave, Long Island

Though this Long Island City gem is modelled after an 1890s gentlemen’s tavern, its vibe is better described as a modern-day Cheers. Even if they don’t know your name, you’ll feel like a regular from your first visit. 

As for the drinks – served with hand-cut ice – owner Richard Boccato has put together a solid roster of tipples that are complex in flavour but simple in recipe and execution, a philosophy he developed under the tutelage of Sasha Petraske. 

Striving for excellence in classic cocktails is the signature here. Head bartender Jan Warren says it best: “It’s a Manhattan made with love, an Old Fashioned prepared simply, but whose life in a glass has a protracted and noticeable arc.” 

Though I’m not lucky enough to have this spot at my backdoor, I know I’ll be welcome anytime. And I look forward to sipping many more simply perfect drinks in its cozy booths or better yet, perched on a stool at the bar.

Dram Bar, 177 South 4th Street, Brooklyn

Drinking at Dram is like hanging out at a friend’s cozy cabin, if said cabin was transported to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. And if said friend played choice tunes and had an extremely well-stocked and well-staffed bar. Here you can get a well-crafted cocktail, a craft beer, a canned beer or a shot, whether during the sun-soaked late afternoons or well into raucous late night hours.

The menu features a selection of seasonally changing house cocktails. When a new drink is added to the tightly curated list, the staff meticulously tests and tastes until they have improved it to be the strongest – in each sense of the word – drink it can be. 

I highly recommend putting your faith in the talented staff, led by head bartender Tonia Guffey, and go for the bartender’s choice. 

The supporting cast of house-made syrups, tinctures and fresh juices are impressive, but the focus is on really letting the spirits shine. Besides the killer drinks and relaxed atmosphere, Dram deserves a spot in this list because, at the end of the day, it’s never forgotten what it is – a bar. 

And, increasingly, that’s what
people are demanding – a comfortable chill place where they can imbibe without intimidation and, above all, have fun.

Clover Club, 210 smith street, brooklyn,

Many New Yorkers would never have imagined they’d see a bar of Clover Club’s calibre in Brooklyn – luckily for them, and Cobble Hill residents in particular, they’ve got one that’s won every major award. But Clover Club hasn’t let the success go to its head, which is why it has been able to evolve its consistently well-run programme over the past five years. 

Owner Julie Reiner cites the emergence of Brooklyn’s culinary culture as playing a huge role in defining Clover Club over the years. “Our clientele are adventurous and sophisticated drinkers who know their booze. So we are able to put more challenging drinks on our menu that we probably couldn’t get away with in other parts of the city. But at the same time no one makes a fuss about any of it.”

The combination of expertly crafted cocktails, an exceedingly accommodating staff and inspired takes on classic bar food add up to an ideal New York drinking experience. “People in Brooklyn don’t just want a great drink and then to run out the door. They want to sit, eat and chill.”

The NoMad, 1170 Broadway, New York

New Yorkers are yearning for livelier places to go for a good cocktail and I can’t think of a better place to let loose than the bar at The Nomad. 

It is a classic cocktail bar with remarkable polish, but with a jolt of New York eccentricity. The thoughtful seasonal menu stays rooted in the classics but pays respect to the surrounding neighborhood, which back in the day was known as the Tenderloin, a vibrant and lively hub for Manhattan’s food and beverage scene.

Kick off your night accordingly with the aptly named Start Me Up, a dangerously easy-drinking variation on a Whiskey Sour that melds Elijah Craig 12-year-old bourbon and Scarlet Ibis rum punched up with spicy ginger syrup and mellowed out by the honeyed herbaceous flavours of Strega.