The Absolute Best Cocktail Bar in New York

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Any drink you order here is guaranteed to be among the best you’ve ever had. Photo: Liz Clayman

One thing New Yorkers tend to do a lot: drink. And the city has so many incredible bars that will cater to exactly that need. Frankly, it’s an embarrassment of riches. Even still, our concern today is the cocktail bar, a sanctuary that specializes in both innovation and familiarity while turning out expertly chilled, exceptionally balanced, deftly mixed drinks of all types. And no matter how many places can do that well — and there are a lot — a few nevertheless do it better than everyone else. These are the best cocktail bars in New York.

The Absolute Best

1. Clover Club
210 Smith St., nr. Butler St., Carroll Gardens; 718-855-7939

Julie Reiner’s eight-year-old Smith Street staple tops this list for one main reason: the unerring consistency and quality of the drinks. Clover’s Sazeracs can go toe-to-toe with any version sold in New Orleans; bartenders here were turning out superlative mai tais long before the modern tiki trend ever took hold; even house cocktails are consistently more interesting — and less overwrought — than they are at lesser bars. And hey, in addition to excellent drinks, the bar is spacious, and the door policy is what you’d call “very democratic” (you can just walk in, and the staff seems genuinely happy to seat you — imagine that), so you won’t get stuck standing in line waiting for a bouncer to grant you access. Serious drinkers should avoid the family-friendly brunch hours, but Clover Club nevertheless earns points for that, too, since it means even new parents — who, let’s be honest, probably need a stiff drink more than anyone — can seek refuge here.

2. Little Branch
20 Seventh Ave. South, at Leroy St.; 212-929-4360

Sixteen years after opening Milk & Honey — New York’s proto faux speakeasy — and almost a year after his untimely death, Sasha Petraske’s influence still looms large over New York’s cocktail scene, at excellent bars like Dutch Kills (alongside its charming new Williamsburg spinoff, Fresh Kills), Middle Branch, and Attaboy (itself located in the original Milk & Honey space). But the most appealing option remains this dark, decade-old basement bar. The not-quite-secret entrance schtick still works because it isn’t ham-fisted, and the vibe inside — firmly in the Petraske tradition — is as civilized as ever. The menu is bare-bones, and the drinks remain peerless. And all these years later, it’s still a little too easy to slip into one of the semiprivate back booths, order one or two drinks too many, and completely lose track of time. When it is eventually time to leave, even the cash-only policy feels like a throwback.

3. The Long Island Bar
110 Atlantic Ave., at Henry St., Cobble Hill; 718-625-8908

The laid-back atmosphere at Toby Cecchini’s revamped Atlantic Avenue diner belies the established talent that works behind the bar. The crew of bartending vets making the drinks draws an industry-heavy crowd that feels instantly familial. The very short cocktail menu only includes a few house drinks — a daiquiri made with pineapple-infused rum is somehow both chic and tropical; the place managed to remind everyone that the Boulevardier is one of the world’s greatest cocktails — but in true excellent-bar fashion, you can order whatever you want and trust that the crack staff will nail it. For anyone who’s grown weary of cocktail nerdery and instead just wants a decent place to drink very well, this is the spot. (The food menu, full of bar snacks and a burger, is noteworthy as well.)

4. The Nomad Bar
10 W. 28th St., nr. Broadway; 347-472-5660

First, the bad news: The crowds here can suck (especially after work, when rat-racers pack in), so your best bet is to nicely give the host your name, grit your teeth, and agree to whatever wait is required to get a table. Once seated away from the fray, the bar feels downright civil. In fact, the proceedings are so meal-like that we were tempted to classify this as a restaurant. But even with gracious service and food from Daniel Humm and executive chef James Kent, it’s clear from looking around that people are mostly here to drink. Luckily, Leo Robitschek has assembled one of the city’s great cocktail menus, covering an array of styles — a tiki-influenced Zombie for two people to share sits next to a Chartreuse-fueled martini variation firmly in the pre-Prohibition mold — all of which go a long way toward helping alleviate the stress of cutting your way through the mob of people.

5. Bar Goto
245 Eldridge St., nr. E. Houston St.; 212-475-4411

The city is loaded with bars opened by veterans of Audrey Saunders’s almighty Pegu Club: Tooker Alley is an ideal neighborhood watering hole. PDT still turns out varsity-level cocktails (even if the tourists discovered it long ago). The relatively new Suffolk Arms is likely the only Irish-inspired pub that blends world-class piña coladas. Even Slowly Shirley, the quiet bar underneath the annoyingly boisterous Happiest Hour, isn’t without its charms. But the spot on this list must go to Kenta Goto’s secluded Lower East Side cocktail den, which feels like the most personal take on the classic-cocktail-bar formula. It helps that the relatively austere house drinks are uniformly elegant (even one that’s garnished with a Japanese marshmallow), the attention to detail is unrivaled, and the food — okonomiyaki and miso chicken wings that should not go un-ordered during a trip here — feels simultaneously inventive and comforting, which is also a spot-on description for the bar itself.

The Best Cocktail Bar in New York