Cocktail Bar, Beer Bar, Dive Bar: Engage Accordingly
Here’s the deal: When in Rome. You know how the rest goes. To enjoy a place, go with what it is. At a football game, dress warmly, eat junky food and yell a lot. At the opera, do pretty much the opposite. And at a drinking establishment, go with what they’re all about.
At a lounge or craft cocktail bar, order one of their specialties off the cocktail menu, or go with a classic like a Manhattan, an old fashioned or a martini. Sure, you can order a beer or a glass of wine, but why would you (unless you really hate hard liquor)? That’s like going to a steakhouse and ordering pasta. It’s probably fine, but why are you there anyway? Get a cocktail at a cocktail bar, and if you know absolutely nothing about cocktails (or what kind you even like), talk to the bartender. He’ll guide you: quenchy, boozy, juicy, dry, on the rocks, up, shaken, stirred. He’ll ask you what you feel like and go from there. Not only will you probably get a drink you like (and often they’ll serve you with the caveat “If you don’t like this one, I’ll make you another), but you’ll learn a little something, too. Expanding the horizons, expanding the parameters, to quote the Beasties.
Likewise, if you’re at a beer bar, with an epic selection up on that barely-legible chalkboard, whaddya ordering a glass of chardonnay for, huh? No. Get a pint—or even a half-pint—of something local. That’s always a good move. It’ll likely be fresh and it’ll probably be a favorite, or it wouldn’t even be on the menu. Don’t know which beer to order? I understand. It can be daunting. Ask the beertender for suggestions and a couple little sample tastes. That’s their job, and as beer geeks they’ll probably be more than happy to educate and guide you. UNLESS it’s packed and three-deep at the bar and chaotic as the run-on-the-bank scene in It’s a Wonderful Life. In that case, just pick one with a weird name. (If “extreme,” “super” or “triple” is featured in a particular beer’s moniker, it might be best to avoid it.) Another good move at most beer bars: ask for a whiskey drink. Beer and whiskey go together like goatees and NASCAR. Though I have seen bartenders at beer bars patiently steer even the most mulish, adamant beer-haters toward something they can enjoy, or at least tolerate. Hey, these people are pros, and they love their ware.
And dive bars. Ohhhh, dive bars. They are what they are, and that is cheap joints for people who wanna get drunk (or at least aren’t fussy about their beverages). You go to a dive and order a cosmo? Fuck you. A mojito? Fuck you sideways. Forget about fresh juices, fancy garnishes, and exotic ingredients. Best bet is to look at the others at the bar and have what their having. Works every time, and it’ll usually be beer and/or whiskey. If you absolutely need a cocktail of a sort, keep it real simple: rum and Coke, gin and tonic, vodka and soda or, maybe, a whiskey sour, and THAT is about as fancy as you want to get. No wine. No Japanese whiskey. No smashes or fizzes or flips or daiquiries. No flaming rum punch, heavy on the cinnamon and light on the cloves. Just keep it simple, like everyone else there, settle in, feed the jukebox, and don’t be a snobby jackass. Enjoy where you are.
More about all kinds of bars in my book Bars, Taverns and Dives New Yorkers Love.