It’s Wednesday, the last night of NYC Without Reservations, and I’m completely ashamed at how relieved I am. Between the time zone difference, a full day in a strange office with heavy deadlines, a couple of late-night social commitments, and the dedication of my free evenings to foodie jaunts, I’m completely exhausted. Cue soundtrack of The World’s Smallest Violin playing, “My Heart Pumps Purple Piss For You.”
Nevertheless, duty calls. I’ve been strategizing an assault on tonight’s destination for months. When we lived in Seattle, Anita and I were introduced to the most amazing bar in the world: The Zig Zag Café, where Murray, Ben, and Kacy mix drinks with the same care and creativity that goes into a great meal at a fine restaurant. Seduced by the art of the cocktail, we’re constantly on the lookout for more of the same, although the Zig Zag sets a very high standard.
So tonight I step off the subway at Bleecker and aim down West Houston street. I keep a sharp eye out, and it’s a good thing: there’s no sign overhead, only a glowing logo etched into an otherwise unremarkable smoked glass and aluminum door. Just as I get close enough to make out a vestibule and a man inside, he pulls the door open to welcome me to the Pegu Club.
A short staircase transports me to a tastefully lit place for cocktails. I drift across the main room, drawn by the bar glowing at the far end. About halfway there, the hostess intercepts me. I ask for a seat at the bar, but it’s full. I can sit at one of the knee-high tables lining the banquette on either side of the room. I am vaguely—no, make that seriously—disappointed. A great bar is like a sushi restaurant: the experience depends on being close to the action.
The hostess must see my face drooping like a Warner Bros. cartoon. Before I can get a word out, she chirps earnestly, “I’ll sit with you!” She’s obviously joking, but the oddness of the offer and her bright, matter-of-fact delivery make me laugh as I take a banquette seat.
I decide to start with the namesake drink, the Pegu cocktail. But seconds after I place my order, the hostess re-appears. “Come with me,” she says. I follow, and she tells me that I am to stand just…here. “These folks are getting ready to go,” she murmurs. “I told you that I’d take care of you. Now, you hover.” I make like a hummingbird and, sure enough, two people on the near end of the bar pack up and split. I slide into one of the seats that they leave empty, and it’s showtime.
The bartender nods a welcome. Later in the evening, I‘ll learn that his name is Phil. In the meantime, I watch him work, smoothly swiveling between drinks and chatting with the group on my right: two men and one woman. I wonder if I need to re-order when my Pegu cocktail appears, made by another bartender who appears to be dedicated to mixing for the rest of the room. The cocktail is served in a coupe glass—a bowl-shaped receptacle that you see champagne served out of in old movies.
I sample the drink and am surprised that the complicated ingredient list winds up tasting like a slightly bitter Cosmo. The coupe glass doesn’t help—it funnels the drink right down the center of my mouth instead of allowing it to spread out across my tongue.
I’m definitely having trouble hitting stride tonight. Phil the bartender is working hard and focusing on the people that he knows. When he needs ice for the shaker, he holds the bar’s large ice cubes in his hand and cracks them by hitting them with a bar spoon. At one point he pulls down a few of the bar’s trademark tinctures for a curious couple. I trade a couple of sentences with a man sitting next to me, but he pulls up stakes and heads out, so I focus on my drink and on watching the room.
I’m feeling a little lost when the hostess swoops in with a big smile, happy that she was able to deliver on a promise. “Who’s your new best friend?” she asks, laughing a little. “You are,” I agree, and thank her for the seat at the bar. Her name is Stephanie and over the course of the next half-hour, we chat while she cares for the room. She takes the train into Manhattan. She knits and has a friend in Westchester buy her special yarn for half what it costs in the city. She calls Westchester “upstate New York” the way that Californians call Colorado “back East.” She’s a talented hostess—the awkwardness drains away, and I begin to feel comfortable in the space.
I’m ready for my next cocktail and ask Phil to recommend something with bourbon. “Boozy?” he asks, “And will rye work?” Fine. He starts mixing and I start wondering: Rye, chartreuse, maraschino, lemon juice. One sip and I feel like I’ve dipped my tongue in a packet of saccharine. It’s intensely, unpleasantly sweet.
Phil and I are each equally taken aback at the other’s reaction. “Sweet?” he asks, amazed. “I’ve never had anyone react that way to that drink.”
“Yep,” I confirm, “Way too sweet.” And I’m thinking: you mix two sweet cordials with citrus and an inherently sweet liquor and you’ve never had anyone tell you that it was sweet?
Phil thinks for a minute and proposes a Corpse Reviver #2. Never had it, but I’m game. He produces a small, chilled glass that looks a bit like a cropped martini or a cordial glass. It catches the attention of the regulars. Apparently when this bit of hardware comes out—Phil calls it a “Nick and Nora” glass—the man is not messing around. The Corpse Reviver #2 is tasty and it packs a wallop. It is definitely not sweet.
While Battle Cocktail has been raging, I’ve fallen into conversation with one of the men in the threesome to my right. While they work on Sazeracs, I learn that they’re out for his brother’s birthday. I mention San Francisco and Seattle, and everyone knows the Zig Zag. We talk shop. I argue educational priorities with his girlfriend. The night spins away.
Except…Phil and I never really get on the same page. My next drink is another citrus-laden number that’s kinda one-dimensional. I ask for a Vesper to clear my palate, and it’s my last of the night. Of all the cocktails, the Vesper is the only one that really works in the coupe glass. For a moment, I feel like James Bond in Monaco.
It isn’t until I’m paying the tab that I realize that at some point Stephanie vanished, having established the correct vibe. I track her down on the way out and thank her for making me feel welcome. At a great bar, what comes in the glass is only part of the magic.