I recently had the opportunity to be in Philadelphia for work for a day and a half. I really like Philly - the place has an attitude all it's own (for better or for worse), and it is ALWAYS present no matter where you go in the city. I have been there over the years five or six times, and I always enjoy going back.
For the one evening I was in town, I stayed at the Ritz Carlton at 10 Avenue of the Arts, right at the corner where S. Broad Street hits City Hall (swanky!). As I checked in, I noted that majority of the huge atrium on the first floor was taken up by the 10 Arts Bar and Restaurant (one of Eric Ripert's establishments). Looking at the extremely long bar with their impressive spread of bottles , I knew this would be my first stop on my secondary motivation for being in Philly - finding some really well crafted cocktails.
Sitting at the sparsely populated bar (this was at 5:30 on a Tuesday), I looked over the cocktail menu, which had about 10 specialty cocktails on it. I focused in on 10 Classic Cucumber - I had just finished a two hour long drive from DC, and I was looking for something refreshing, but not sweet. The cocktail is made with Tanqueray 10 gin, organic cucumber slices, and a squeeze of lime stirred with ice in a sea salt rimmed rocks glass. This was VERY tasty - the more floral nature of Tanqueray 10 really complimented the fresh cucumber flavor, and the sea salt really set the whole thing off. As I drank, I asked the bartender where he would suggest I go for really well made cocktails. He confessed he was not the regular bartender (+1 for honesty), and asked a waitress if she could recommend a place. She pointed me to El Vez, about three blocks away.
El Vez (not to be confused with El Vez!), at the corner of Latona and S. 13th Streets just off of S. Broad, looked promising - outdoor seating, crowded and lively, interesting exterior. Stepping inside, my anticipation was somewhat diminished - El Vez is a mexican restaurant, which isn't something I automatically equate with good cocktails (outside of a margarita, and I have been more likely than not to have great margaritas at non-Mexican establishments). Sitting down at the crowded, centrally placed bar-in-the-round, I ordered some (very good) guacamole and chips and perused the drinks menu. Of course, margaritas were well represented (the Frozen Blood Orange sounded very tempting) but they also had a decent list of "specialty drinks" - I focused in on the El Tono. Made with cranberry infused bourbon, lime juice, and hibiscus tea, it sounded really intriguing - having done some of my own infusions recently, and thinking the combo of bourbon and tea would be pretty refreshing, I ordered one up.
The bartender was very efficient and professional - I like it when, before I am served a drink, a bartender takes a straw and pulls out a small sample to taste for correctness. The cocktail looked pretty - nice reddish hue from the cranberries (a couple sitting in the bottom of the glass), the tea aroma faint but present. Unfortunately, the cranberry taste was overwhelming - the tartness of the fruit was really the only thing that came through. I did note that I got the bourbon from near the bottom of the bottle, so it was possible the bourbon had been infusing for too long. But overall, that drink just reminded me that I didn't really like cranberry juice anyway (oh, yeah, that.) Sticking with my methodology, I asked one of the bartenders where they would go for a great cocktail. She highly recommended Apothecary across the street. I had heard of this place prior to coming to Philly - very innovative drinks, house made infusions and the use of fresh ingredients all promised good things.
Except it was closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Guess you gotta have a weekend at some point.
So, I went back and asked for an alternative suggestions. They mentioned I try Continental, which was a several block walk, but which they assured me would actually be, you know, open.
And good. So I headed west through the ever growing evening rush hour mass of humanity to seek the place out.
I never got there. I was struck by a restaurant and cocktail lounge with a large, neon champagne coupe on it's sign - Butcher and Singer. I figured that any place with a sign and name like that was pretty boldly saying "We make great cocktails for ladies and gentlemen that can tell the difference." Figuring they would never know whether I fit that category or not, I headed inside.
This was another double height space (probably a bank) that had been turned into a restaurant - dark, clubby, with modern lounge music drifting around in the background. The bar was actually very small - up front, it seated at most ten. However, immediately I knew I had made a good choice - the bartender was dressed in a crisp white jacket and bow tie, and he fronted a very well stocked bar (especially given the size). Sitting down, I asked what he would suggest for a classic cocktail - he suggested I start with a Sidecar. Excellent. This was actually a cocktail I had read a lot about, and was one of the cocktails that had become popular again when their became an increased interest in "classic" cocktails in the 90's. But I had never actually had one (although it was on my "to make" list). So I told the man to work his craft (I didn't really say that) and waited for classic goodness to be placed before me.
And I was not disappointed.
Next Time: The Butcher and Singer Experience