Martini menus are NYC’s biggest fall drinking trend
Dedicated martini menus have started popping up all over the city.
Earlier this year, frozen drinks were everywhere, most notably at some previously unlikely locations. A little later, espresso “martinis”, which cling to that moniker mostly due familiar glassware, made a curious reemergence.
The frozen explosion made sense: Many restaurants and bars were continuing to expand outdoors heading into a second hot pandemic summer. The espresso martini revival was a little more puzzling, and a few bartenders we’ve spoken to for this and other stories have wondered whether their recent ubiquity is due to irony or something like 2018’s Aperol Spritz blitz.
Now, we’re starting to see dedicated martini menus—rosters of cocktails with varying volumes of gin, vermouth and, fine, sometimes vodka—at some of 2021’s best new restaurants. The most frequent explanation we’ve heard? These new restaurants and bars, however varied their design and geography may be, just seem to be speaking martinis to their operators.
Sidney’s Five opened in May with a list nine martinis deep, depending on how you’re counting. Its bar menu has five, including a standard, a vesper and a 2:1, plus a flight of three teeny martinis and one more breakfast version at brunch.
“It’s something that says, to me, Don’t underestimate me; I’m small but I have a punch, and I’m here to have a good time,” says culinary director Edie Ugot. Along with business partners Kai Woo, David Lowenstein and Walker Chambliss, Ugot began conceptualizing Sidney’s Five as a passion project. Martinis were part of the equation from the get-go, inspired in part by Grand Central Oyster Bar, seafood-studded trips to New Orleans, the desire to capture a kind of timeless New York essence and the Sidney’s Five space.
“We sort of get a retro vibe in the restaurant as well and, you know, a martini is an American classic,” Chambliss says. “It’s considered a standard of cocktails throughout the world.”
“When we knew that the martinis were gonna be a fixture, we were like, ok, what types of food go really well with martinis, and the classic thing that comes to mind is obviously seafood, so it goes hand in hand,” Ugot says. “We were like, ok, perfect, we can incorporate our chargrilled oysters with that. And we did want to have more than one flavor. The martinis are the same way.”
In addition to Ugot’s trio of garlic herb, nori mayo and chili butter chargrilled oysters, the menu features fish and chips, mussels, burgers and a popular sweet and savory andouille sausage, all developed with a focus on fun, shareable indulgence. There’s even free popcorn at happy hour.
“That’s really our theme here,” Ugot says. “A little bit naughty, a little decadent, but also a little playful.”
Sidney’s Five and its contemporaries are also apparently creating new martini fans with each passing happy hour. Chambliss (who prefers to stir, not shake, martinis, so as not to bruise the spirits) says their selections help people learn more about what they might like via vermouth ratios and subtle garnish variations.
“A large part of what our menu is, is to make it like, hey, these are all martinis. And it’s ok to not know about them necessarily. But I’m here to offer advice and guidance for you to find something that you really enjoy.”
Midtown’s Daintree is another new spot with a dedicated martini menu, going so far as to divide its drinks into “martinis” (five of them) and “everything else.” Beverage director Tristan Brunel says that his team’s process was also informed by its space: A rooftop bar with a portrait view of the Empire State Building in an area highly concentrated with offices.
“You think about big, tall buildings; you think about tall, dramatic martini glasses to sort of compliment the view. At the baseline it was like, what are we not seeing people doing,” Brunel says, noting the cyclical nature of beverage trends. “And for us, we were like, no one that we know, or really at the time, back in April/May, was focusing on [martinis].”
“We’re trying to give them a bit of a moment,” he says. “The other thing we want to be is a bit educational.”
For Brunel, that necessitates a brief interrogation that hopefully helps a guest’s preference emerge. He calls it a choose your own adventure.
“Some people want it wet, extra dirty, lightly dirty, so if you start thinking about the combinations in that form, and garnishes, it starts to become an exponential number as you go on,” Brunel says.
“At the end of the day, we do want to open the realm of possibility for people. Maybe we talk someone into a 50/50, and the next thing you know they’re drinking a vesper that they’ve never had before and they’re getting to experience something different.”
One of the first places we noticed this year’s martini focus was at Gage & Tollner in Brooklyn shortly after it opened this past April. This detail was, at the time, easy to miss, given just how many details there are at the restaurant. (Revived by Brooklyn culinary heroes chef/partner Sohui Kim and partners St. John Frizell and Ben Schneider, it’s the kind of place that will probably appear on a lot of best restaurants of 2021 lists.) But there they are, seven martinis leading the cocktail list, the first drinks you see.
“Our philosophy has always been to collaboratively honor the space and the best way we could do that was by applying our experience and our philosophies to food systems and beverage systems,” says executive chef Adam Shepard.
“The direction of the menu for Sohui and myself and of course the beverage program for St. John, it kind of developed at the same time because of the story of Gage and Tollner, and the way that Gage and Tollner has always presented itself.”
That all almost makes it sound like it was easy honoring G&T’s 125-year history, but even perfecting the formula for one of those seven martinis in a fashion that truly spoke to the restaurant’s past and present, was a study.
“When these cocktails were being approached by St. John, he looked at everything. He tried the perfect martini with 30, 40 different gins. In an effort not to figure out what gin is all about, but to figure out the correct marriage between the correct gin and the correct vermouths for sweet and dry and so on,” Shepard says. “The point in this particular endeavor is not to figure out how many different cocktails I can make with all these different gins and vermouth combos, it’s about how am I gonna find the soul that I’m looking for in my perfect martini.”
While Gage & Tollber’s food and beverage teams work collaboratively, they’re all still bringing their own experience and interpretation of how best to pay homage to the historic space and reinvigorate it for the present day, Shepherd says. In other words, it doesn’t explicitly match, but it goes.
In particular, the chef recommends a dirty martini and the gougères, a new menu addition made with roquefort and Castelvetrano olives, a perfect martini with the roast pork with sour cherry mostarda, and a turf martini with the oysters Rockefeller. “A tiny bit of absinthe goes with the Rockefeller, which has a tiny bit of absinthe,” he says. “Olives and olives, absinthe and absinthe, those kind of things are just natural bridges, built from the beverage to the food.”
The restaurant with this season’s newest dedicated martini menu hasn’t even opened yet. Jack & Charlie’s no. 118 will open in a landmarked building in the West Village in the coming days. Jack & Charlie’s, a supper club style operation, will offer five martinis to start, including the Hot Charlie, a spicy martini with bianco vermouth and chilis. They’ll all be served in Nick & Nora glasses, along with sidecars.
“You really have to kind of see the space to get a real feel for it, but spaces like this really aren’t a dime a dozen in New York City,” says general manager Craig Hutson.
“It kind of pushes to that era when people would go drink a martini in a bar, or drink a martini before dinner, and that’s really where we got the inspiration for it,” he says. “The room really pulled the story, and then we felt like we had to pay homage to the fact that the space has been a restaurant for so long. The look and the feel of it really kind of gave itself to really focusing on proper martini presentations.”
Each of these restaurants and bars are lovely in their own ways (plus the assumed loveliness we’ll grant Jack & Charlie’s no. 118 while we await a glimpse), and the metaphorically phonetic architecture follows in similarly disparate fashion. The 1960s cocktail hour fun at Sidney’s Five and the suspended above the city heartbeat on the rooftop at Daintree and the grand, ornate, Old New York style at Gage & Tollner and Jack and Charlie’s throwback supper club aspirations could all call for martinis, and clearly have. But there are also a few loose ribbons that may tie this all together.
Restaurants and bars are also handling supply chain issues and rising prices that make longer-lasting ingredients more attractive than relying on expensive fresh juices and house-made syrups. An urge to return to the classics came up a few times, too, and with it a desire to serve guests in a meaningful way without having to figuratively, or, in some cocktail cases, literally, set anything on fire. So, as much as it tracks that these spaces are calling out for martinis, they’re also asking to stay in business. A mix of gin, vermouth and its variations seem to make a suitable blueprint, whoever’s drafting it.
“I kind of just created this menu in a vacuum,” Chambliss says. “I’m curious if it’s just like, an unconscious trend that we’re all striving toward.”