The first time I pulled up a stool at the Gramercy Tavern, it was the spring of 2006 and an affable young chap named Jim Meehan — now of PDT fame — was manning the long mahogany bar. I had just arrived in New York, bright-eyed and looking, often in vain, for that illustrious bar job that I had been dreaming of for years. I had plied my trade for over a decade back home in Sydney, where I was at the helm of arguably that city’s most iconic restaurant bar, at the Bayswater Brasserie.
At that time, I had no idea I was on such hallowed ground, a place that was well and truly an icon in the lexicon of great New York restaurants after 12 years in operation. I was more enamored by Meehan’s hospitality during that first meeting than the extensive beverage menu and the minutiae of their bar program that I was not yet privy to. I didn’t know what the Zagat guide was (which has listed the Gramercy Tavern as the best in New York on many occasions). In time, rather unexpectedly, this bar would change my life.
Over several visits in the ensuing months and dozens more in the years since, the Gramercy showed me that a restaurant could indeed have a world-class bar where the drinks commanded the same level of respect and recognition as the food. The bar wasn’t merely an afterthought, which most restaurant bars had traditionally been. Michael Anthony’s food was the star of the show. But if you take the time to pore over their wondrous tome of a beverage menu, you’ll find one of the greatest selections in the entire country.
The Gramercy Tavern was the first bar I’d ever been in that had clearly put a lot of thought into every aspect of their operation. There were interesting and esoteric wines by the glass, juxtaposing cult producers from Napa with funky bins from Lebanon or Slovenia that almost no one had heard of. Blaufränkisch from Austria? Sure, they got you. Elegant Lambrusco from Emilia Romagna? Check. Oh, and all of them available by the glass and taste.
Their cocktail menu has always been concise and I would say fairly safe by today’s sometimes confusing standards, but there are some curiosities with ingredients that most of the population might have to Google, such as bonal quinquina, Cocchi Americano and Cynar. But Gramercy’s bar also has a whopping 18 nonalcoholic options, one of the best bottled beer lists in the city (including a killer porter from Finland and an entire page of vintage brews), an unnecessarily large, but certainly welcome, selection of ciders, and an astonishing range of fortified wines.
It’s what I’ve referred to on many occasions as a “complete bar.” I was enamored by how thoughtful everything was. For the first time, every tiny detail seemed as important as the next: From the leather placemats at the bar to the quality of the gleaming wineglasses, and the length and breadth of the drinks menu. They were also one of the first venues to use the now ubiquitous Kold Draft ice machine, now a staple in every craft cocktail bar across the country. They made the restaurant bar a destination.
Juliette Pope, the delightful and recently departed beverage director at the Gramercy Tavern, started there as a cook 18 years ago when wine guru Paul Grieco was in charge of the beverage program. She took the reins herself almost a decade ago when “cocktails and fine dining were not so common,” she admits. She credits Nick Maltone as the driving force who ushered in the first wave of seasonal cocktails, while now it’s more of a collaborative effort with the entire bar team.
“The menu has continued to grow and evolve to reflect the products that I’m passionate about that will hopefully also enlighten our guests. It was Paul [Grieco and Steve Olson who really laid the ground work; we’ve just continued to refine it and tweak it along the way.”
In a move that shocked many in the restaurant world, Pope stepped down from her role as beverage director in June, leaving the Gramercy Tavern after an illustrious career that has bestowed many awards and accolades for her work, including Wine Person of the Year from Imbibe magazine. Under her guidance, Wine Spectator has given Gramercy the Best of Award of Excellence every year since 2006.
“Gramercy Tavern was conceived to reimagine the entire tavern experience — the warmth of the welcome, convivial atmosphere, bar offerings, and of course, the food,” owner Danny Meyer recently told me via email.
“From the day we opened in 1994, the bar itself has been the spiritual centerpiece of the place, and the restaurant has enjoyed a long tradition of employing some of the industry’s most revered and storied beverage and wine professionals to tend the roost,” Meyer continued. “Most recently, Juliette Pope led the way, and her passion for finding off-the-beaten-track products, her unwavering dedication to staff education, to supplier relationships, and to guest hospitality made her a fixture at Gramercy Tavern. She will be sorely missed!”
From that first visit back in 2006, every bar I’ve run since has been imbued with that same philosophy of trying to create the complete bar. I travel the world extensively now, talking about the successful bars I’ve run in recent years for the AvroKO group as well as Dante in Greenwich Village. In each and every seminar, I always highlight the influence that the Gramercy Tavern has had on each of these venues.
For the longest time, the bar in most restaurants was little more than a holding pen, a place where hungry diners gathered, waiting impatiently for their tables to be re-set. Very few were destinations in their own right, and they certainly weren’t the temples to mixology that many are considered today. Cocktail menus were rudimentary at best and might have included familiar and classic names like the Manhattan, Sidecar, Gibson and those of a similar ilk. A Corpse Reviver would have been a revelation.
One only needs to see the fact that the James Beard Foundation now has a category in its annual awards recognizing the country’s Outstanding Bar Program, which last year was won by the bar at Maison Premiere, a place that adeptly straddles the line between bar and restaurant. In 2014, the bar at the NoMad restaurant was the recipient of the award, for its stellar program helmed by Leo Robitschek.
Even the Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards — held in July each year and voted for by a veritable who’s who of the bar industry — began dishing out one of its signature crystal Riedel plates to America’s best restaurant bar back in 2011, when Eleven Madison Park took the top prize. Erik Adkins, the long-serving beverage director for Charles Phan’s growing empire in San Francisco, collected the same award the following year for his work at the Slanted Door. My own efforts paid off in 2013 when Saxon + Parole was given this honor. The bar at the NoMad was recognized in 2014, and the behemoth of a bar at Boston’s Eastern Standard took the gong last year.
So what does make a great restaurant bar program? According to Robitschek, who also oversees the bar at Eleven Madison Park, it needs to have more considerations than simply making great cocktails. He shares a similar philosophy with the Gramercy Tavern, and the length and diversity on his own menus is rather commendable, while he puts an obsessive amount of work into the cocktails at each. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that he worked for Meyer, who was the original owner of EMP.
After getting his start at Sushi Samba, Robitschek came to EMP in 2005 after hearing about how well the employees of Danny Meyer’s restaurants were treated. During a period he calls the “dark ages,” the cocktail menu numbered eight drinks (“mainly obscure classics”), there were no house-made syrups and he was one of the first people to start using sherry in cocktails again. “Not because I thought it was cool; we just had so much stock left over from the previous regime,” he says jokingly.
Meyer would eventually sell the restaurant to his general manager, Will Guidara, and chef Daniel Humm, and Robitschek recalls them telling him that they wanted to make EMP one of the best bars in the world, citing Milk & Honey and the Pegu Club as benchmarks. Robitschek thought that was a “laughable goal” at the time, but he believes his new bosses and eventual mentors singled him out because he was one of the few employees who really cared. He went “back to basics” with those early drinks made up mostly of forgotten classics such as the Bronx, Last Word and the Brandy Crusta.
He began working closely with the kitchen and in particular, the pastry chefs, an internal partnership and advantage that many restaurant bars enjoy. Humm’s exacting standards soon permeated their way into the cocktail program, much like they did with Charles Joly when he was the man running the Aviary for Grant Achatz in Chicago.
“I think there’s always been a symbiotic relationship between kitchen and bar,” Joly says. “At the Aviary, the combination of our unique experiences created a sum far greater than the parts. When you have access to a high-functioning kitchen, it is bound to be filled with chefs with incredibly diverse experience and creative minds. Having access to that depth of hands-on knowledge and real-world experience can really shorten the path to problem solving. It doesn’t mean you’ll always agree, as creative minds come with strong opinions. If you can set ego aside and just let a creative session go, you never know where a new inspiration or idea will blossom from.”
The “Oscars” of the bar world — the Spirited Awards — took place in New Orleans this past July for the tenth time. The award for the Best Restaurant Bar is always one of the most highly anticipated. This year, perhaps the most anxiety came from the Gramercy Tavern crew, with whom I shared a table. Though they just lost out to Saxon + Parole this time, the legacy left by Pope and those who came before her will not be forgotten.