by john bobey
photography by william brinson | January 23, 2012 | Food & Drink
Crescendo martini glass, Luigi Bormioli (set of four, $46). bloomingdales.com
|The Algonquin, where Dorothy Parker ruled the Round Table|
|The Four Seasons Restaurant, as classic as the martini|
With the resurgence of supper clubs and speakeasies like The Darby and 1920 Bunker Club, Art Deco ruling the runways, and the success of retro filmed-in-Manhattan series such as Mad Men, New Yorkers are feeling a certain vintage romanticism. “Our tag line at The Campbell Apartment is ‘Cocktails from Another Era,’ and when we opened the place that was our mandate,” says Mark Grossich, owner and CEO of Hospitality Holdings, which oversees the famed Grand Central establishment. “We wanted to bring back the classic cocktail lounge and the drinks associated with that. All of the mixology that has been going on over the past couple of years, with drinks having multiple ingredients, is certainly intriguing, but you can’t beat the classics.”
Yusef Austin, a Stoli Elit ambassador and creator of cocktail programs for such noted New York establishments as the Boom Boom Room, concurs. “Cocktail programs, which have been on the upswing for the last three or four years, are the latest development in terms of the classic martini. Today, you know that if a place has great food, the cocktail bar will be a complement to what is happening in the kitchen.”
Quality and simplicity are the keys to a good martini, and when it is done perfectly, New Yorkers show their appreciation. “In terms of cocktails at our bar, I would say it’s a 60-40 split of martinis to everything else,” says Pasquale Trunzo, beverage director for The Palm on West 50th Street. “We are known for the generous pours of our martinis, and in a nutshell, that’s what The Palm is all about: generosity, opulence, and a nice martini in your hand, in a place to see and be seen.”
After all, this is the town that not only incited the modern mixology movement, but also, according to some, invented the martini in the first place. Legend has it that the first martini was stirred up approximately a century ago at the bar at John Jacob Astor’s Knickerbocker Hotel, a nowlandmarked building on the corner of Broadway and West 42nd Street. In a 2003 “Morning News” article on the hotel, The New York Times editor Clay Risen wrote, “That bar is where, in 1912, an immigrant bartender named Martini di Arma di Taggia allegedly mixed gin and dry vermouth, perfecting the martini. One of his first tasters was John D. Rockefeller, who liked it so much that he recommended it to his Wall Street buddies, and the drink quickly became a national favorite.”
The same concoction has been fueling New York’s captains of industry and finance ever since. “I started drinking martinis when I was 24; I had a friend who turned me onto them,” says Ward Morgenthau, a stockbroker at Kern, Suslow Securities and a financial services professional for more than 40 years. “In my early days, Fridays and Mondays were big for the three-martini lunch, and there were many lunches where there were many more than three.
“A lot of big producers were very white-shoe,” continues Morgenthau, “and would hang out at the hotel bars on the Upper East Side, such as The Drake, where they’d hold court and cultivate wealthy clients. A friend of mine was a member of a place called The Bankers Club, and we always had at least three drinks. They had a Cuban guy at the bar who could bury people, he had such a heavy hand.”
Those days are gone except for the rare few that can still get away with it—on television. “They didn’t hide it; they drank during the day and then went back to the office and actually were productive or, in the case of Don Draper, reproductive,” quips Bryan Batt, who played Salvatore Romano on AMC’s award-winning Mad Men. “I personally love a bone-dry vodka martini with a twist. That is my drink of choice, but I seem to think that Sal would have been more classic and had a gin martini. I also think he would have been an olive man, something to pick up and nosh on.”
Our city’s cultural love affair with the martini predates Don Draper’s fondness for women. New York in the roaring ’20s witnessed an unsurpassed collection of writers, journalists, and critics, the best of whom were seated at the Algonquin Hotel’s Round Table. Dorothy Parker noted her feelings on her favorite drink as, “I love to drink martinis, two at the very most. After three I’m under the table, after four I’m under my host.” H.L. Mencken offered that the martini is “the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet.”
Mini serveware 12-piece set, including six bowls and six spoons, Macy’s ($19.99).
|The Knickerbocker Hotel, birthplace of the martini|
Thanks to the infamous imbibers of their day, the martini was inextricably linked with the good life. “The martini became the embodiment of a generation,” says Francesco Lafranconi, spirits expert and developer of cocktail programs for restaurateurs such as Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller, and Wolfgang Puck. “It became part of a lifestyle, and this is why the martini is synonymous with sophistication, good living, and luxury. It represents a state of being.”
While many of that generation’s favorite haunts are long gone, there are a few places where Parker and Mencken would still feel quite comfortable settling in and having a few. Since opening in 1959, The Four Seasons Restaurant has been the epicenter of the New York power lunch. Nothing has changed in the architecture, design, or service, so a visit to the famed Grill Room or Pool Room is like stepping back in time. “There aren’t many places you can walk into 50 years later and it still looks the same,” says Greg Connolly, head bartender at the Four Seasons and coauthor of The Four Seasons Book of Cocktails, of the famed East 52nd Street restaurant. “The original martini was gin, and then some of the old-timers let vodka sneak into the category, sometimes with a twist instead of with olives. When someone new starts here, we train them to make a martini the way it was made 40 years ago.”
Whether it snuck in or not, the vodka martini is definitely here to stay, thanks in large part to Bond, James Bond. Along with his preferred method of preparation, “shaken, not stirred,” as he first uttered in 1964’s Goldfinger, Bond wasn’t alone in ordering his martinis made with vodka. The 1960s saw a number of vodka brands being imported from Russia, and ever since the vodka martini has been every bit as legitimate as one made with gin.
These days, the demand for premium spirits makes a modern classic even better, and New York’s most upscale establishments are all too happy to oblige. “We are a vodka bar, so the expectation is always toward the vodka martini,” explains Ana Opitz, co-owner of the swank caviar bar Pravda on Lafayette Street in Soho. “When I watch someone order a martini, it’s a much different thing than ordering another cocktail. With a martini, somebody really knows what he or she wants.”
And whether it’s the frosty evergreen taste of a fine gin or the smooth distilled clarity of icy premium vodka the connoisseur wants, the New York martini drinker will inevitably be treated to a sip of what E.B. White referred to as “the elixir of quietude.” “With the economy where it is these days, it is a treat to have something fabulous,” says Grossich of a top-shelf martini. “A terrific drink is an affordable luxury. It is a small price to pay to taste a link to the heritage.”
photography by Bettmann/corbis (algonquin, knickerbocker); courtesy of the four seasons restaurant; drink stylist: ed gabriels for halley resources