After my tasty Chimay and less than tasty chicken sandwich at House of Brews, I went back to my hotel to make sure I had all my addresses and contact info squared away. I get around pretty well in the New York subway, but I realized that a little research before I delved head first into the rush hour clogged tunnels would probably serve me well, especially for the part of the evening where I am heading back to the hotel after a handful of drinks. Got my bearings, made a list of the trains I needed to hit, and off I went. Next stop - Death + Company.
When you get into a conversation with someone about cocktails in NYC (which I sometimes do), Death + Co. always comes up - innovative, cutting edge cocktails that harken back to a time when bartending was a great American art. The name is tough to get a handle on - their web site mentions that, in the hysteria leading up to the adoption of the Vollstead Act and what would be the Prohibition Era (widely seen as the death of the art of bartending), those that drank alcohol were said to lead a life overshadowed by death at all times. So Death and it's company - the drinker. Sylvia Plath also has a short poem entitled Death and Co. - but since I gave up being an English measure in large part because I sucked at literary analysis (and was far too good at consuming large amounts of Milwaukee's Best), I won't even start in on what connection there may be to that.
The bar itself presents a somewhat imposing facade - dark wood and steel fronting, no windows, "Death & Co." written in script in stone in front of the heavy wooden door with a sculptural wrought iron handle. Manned by an appropriately hipster-ish doorman, the bar doesn't take reservations, and is first come first served with no standing. If the place is full, they will take your phone number and call you when a bar seat or table becomes available, but I have heard the waits can be quite long (if you consider never getting a call back "long".)
To make sure I didn't have any such issues, I showed up early in the evening on a Wednesday. My friend Ron accompanied me - a former NYC resident and long time drinking buddy from our UMD days (see above about Milwukee's Best consumption), I always try to hook up with him when I am in town to catch up. It also helps to cut down on that "creepy guy drinking alone" vibe which tends to turn people off for some reason. After being escorted inside by the hipster doorman, we entered the dimly lit bar. Lots of candlelight, dark wood slat ceilings, shimmery yet subdued wallpaper and sconces. Very much the speakeasy / drinking "establishment" look and feel. Even early, the bar was pretty full, so we chose to sit at a table - probably our first mistake of the evening.
The bar lines one side of the space, and the other is lined by small tables in the front and then booths as you move further back, with a "back bar" all the way in the back. Sitting at a table removes you from one of the big draws of the place - watching the bartenders make drinks. They do it with style and professionalism here, and having your well crafted cocktail delivered to you by a (albeit lovely and very engaging) waitress kinda deadens the experience. And the place does get loud, and these tables are close to one another, so I am sure the couple sitting next to us on a date loved hearing our conversation about...whatever the hell it was we were blathering on about. I know we dropped a few f-bombs in there, which I am sure they found romantic.
That being said, the drinks were very, very good. I had heard about the Oaxaca Old-Fashioneds they featured, so I ordered one even though it wasn't on the menu. The waitress gushed that is was a great choice and that they were awesome, and she was right. Made with reposado tequila, mescal, and agave nectar, then finished off with a flamed orange, it was boozy but light, had a great tequila flavor yet was very balanced. Ron ordered a Jack Rose, that classic cocktail made with Laird's Applejack, grenadine, and lemon juice. Next I had a Grand Street, which I only remember as being Cynar-based and quite good (I love that stuff), and Ron had a Southern Exposure, which was easily my favorite drink of the evening. Made with jalapeno infused tequila, mescal, agave nectar, and roasted red pepper puree, it was delightful - the jalapeno gave it some fruity spice, and the red pepper puree (which must have been strained since it was not at all pulpy) gave it a nice smokiness which played off the smokiness of the mescal. While drinking, we snacked on some homemade potato chips, which were great - their bar menu looked really interesting, but as we were planning to go to dinner next, we held off on the more substantial fare.
Overall, I would say the experience was....very good. The service was very attentive, the drinks were great, the space very nice. It just didn't live up to the hype I had built up in my own mind about what the place would be like. I actually think that The Gibson in DC does this formula slightly better - they do take reservations, but limit the time for people at the tables to a max of 2 hours, assuring a good amount of access to the place, and they do the whole no standing / call back thing as well. And it's a better overall space - not as loud, better layout, more conducive to good conversation and good drinks. Next time, I'll sit at the bar and risk looking like the creepy guy to see if the experience is different.
Next stop: Caracas.