Sometimes, when you’re waiting by a kiosk to spend $17 on a sad salad with wilting greens, you start to daydream of a better world: One in which you are, instead, sitting down to a nice lunch at a restaurant with drinks so cheap you don’t even think twice about ordering a second round. Sometimes, you hear stories from boomers about “three-martini lunches” or reports from your friends about 25 cent martinis in New Orleans. Which is why the West Village restaurant Anton’s created such buzz when it announced it was offering a drink special of 25 cent martinis and Manhattans. The deal was available only during lunch for the month of January and limited to two per customers who first ordered food. Beverage director Natalie Johnson and chef Nick Anderer devised the special to lure customers in during slow afternoons and accidentally caught heat from New York’s State Liquor Authority.
After finding out about the deal, the SLA ordered the restaurant to end it because, the state agency argued, it violated a prohibition against unlimited drinks. (A spokesperson for the SLA says, “Following complaints about 25 cent martinis, SLA Investigators reached out to the licensee to issue a warning and remind them of their obligations.” Anton’s will sell the drinks for $9 for the rest of the month.) Grub spoke with beverage director Johnson and Anderer about the martini madness.
So earlier this month, you announced, first on Nick’s Instagram and then on Anton’s, that you were offering 25 cent martinis and Manhattans for lunch. In that, you mentioned taking inspiration from New Orleans restaurants. What was the thinking behind this?
Natalie Johnson: Yeah. We take a lot of inspiration from New Orleans in general in what we do. One of our favorite places to visit is Commander’s Palace, as well as Galatoire’s, which both have really fun lunch services. People are dressed up, there’s live music, and there are, in some cases, 25 cent martinis. So we really wanted to bring that back to New York, especially this time of year, during what’s a slower month, of course, for restaurants. Particularly this year, coming on the heels of Omicron, which sort of quieted business earlier than normal in December.
I’ve been to Commander’s Palace and I had those 25 cent martinis. One of my friends who I was with asked the server, “What kind of vodka do you use?” And he responded, “You get 25 cent vodka.” Have you been using 25 cent gin?
NJ: No, this is our standard icebox martini, which, since we opened, has been made with Beefeater gin because that’s how we both like to drink our martinis. But we also offer a vodka version, which is prepared the same way pre-stirred and comes straight from the freezer. For our Manhattan as well, we make with old Overholt rye. So we weren’t using swill.
Okay, no Georgi, the official vodka of high school.
Nick Anderer: It was really just the first week of January, ’cause we were sitting around with our staff and so many other restaurants were still closed. We were twiddling our thumbs. It’s kind of depressing to be in a slow restaurant, especially on the heels of having such a busy, fun, festive year. Omicron was really that punch in the gut that left all of us kind of feeling like, blah. We needed to do something to activate the space and our staff.
NJ: Especially because we have a full staff. If you spent time in New York, all through last summer and in the fall, I mean our business demanded that we restaff entirely. These ups and downs, and the waves that come to New York, and everyone gets scared and kind of buttons up again. It’s really hard to sustain staffing levels and keep everyone in a place where they can receive an honest paycheck. We’re used to being scrappy in these ways, especially in the last couple years with COVID, to try and keep things as consistent as we can. That’s sort of the idea here. Plus we love the tradition of it. We wanted to have fun. We’re in the business of service and hospitality and providing a great experience. So we’re always thinking about these things.
NA: And to be clear, in terms of this drink special, we are not a drink-special place. That’s not the kind of thing that we normally do. The idea behind this wasn’t about giving people an unlimited amount of cheap cocktails. As a matter of fact, we limited the special. Everybody could only get two. We just wanted to do something fun that was an homage to Commander’s Palace. Nobody does shots.
You wrote in your post that you didn’t know this was prohibited until the SLA came knocking. “Hey, stop this!” What happened?
NJ: They sent someone who’s called, I guess, an investigator. We weren’t at the restaurant at the time, so he spoke with our manager and let him know that this was breaking this law and we couldn’t proceed. He opened a case and issued a warning. We need to now produce some not-insignificant paper to respond to this case that they opened.
Yeah, they’re specifically citing this prohibition against unlimited drinks in the Alcoholic Beverage Control law. The language seems to be broad to account for creative ways people may find around it, but it prohibits selling drinks “for such a minor amount that in the judgment of the authority the pricing would constitute an attempt to circumvent the intent and purposes of this section.”
NA: They recited the same thing to us. And more. Of course we do not — for the record — want to be in noncompliance with anything that the SLA dictates. It was never our intention, when we started this special, to break any laws. Nobody wants to mess with the SLA. We’re just being honest business owners trying to make an honest living during a very, very tough month.
I feel like the two things that are hardest to get restaurant owners to talk about are landlords and the SLA. I brought that section up because I was wondering from your perspective, this isn’t unlimited and if I wanted to get a third drink —
NJ: Had to happen with the purchase of food.
NA: That’s another thing that was stated to us. And I think that the lesson that I’ve learned is that you have to be very careful about what you post on Instagram because this all stems from the language that they read on the offering that I made on my own personal Instagram, which was then reposted to the Anton’s account. That post didn’t give all the stipulations. It didn’t say in there, “Hey, there’s a, there’s a two drink maximum.” It didn’t say that you must order food. But these are things that our management team were trained to say when anybody came in.
NJ: Because of course we’re not opening up our doors to just hand out free booze. That’s not the point at all. And there’s fine print for a reason, but you don’t put fine print in bold in the ad. The ad needs to be seductive, right? Yeah. We’re seducing you in with 25 cent martinis, but you’re going to come and eat a $24 entree, and we’re not going to send you out on the street drunk on your ass because this happens 12:00 to 3:00 p.m., three days a week. It’s very controlled.
Right. What you’re describing isn’t bottomless brunch, but that’s the way they make it work for bottomless brunch. Where you’re offering people unlimited food and then they can get some drinks.
NJ: It comes down to language.
NJ: Yeah, and that’s not the point which is frustrating too, because you know, people now on the internet and Instagram are like, “Why don’t you just charge me for a sandwich or charge me for the cocktail and give me a 25 cent sandwich?” Which would be legal, I think, but it’s like, that’s just not the point. The point is not to be giving away free anything. The point is, “This is January in New York City on the heels of Omicron, so come to our restaurant, please.” This is how we’re going to get your attention. And then, let’s have a little fun while we do this, you know?
If it’s just not having put out certain information on the internet, that’s frustrating. Were you seeing a demonstrable difference in, in business during these lunch days?
NJ: We booked out lunch for the entire month of January. We gained 2,000 followers on Instagram in maybe a week. It blew up. I mean the Post picked up on it because it jumped from Instagram to TikTok. It was wild.
Was the response immediate?
NJ: I would say it took a couple of days. Once it was picked up by a couple of big Instagram accounts and TikTok, I mean … I don’t TikTok, I don’t really know much about it, but wow. After our first week — with people actually in the restaurant posting photos and videos — the rest of the month was booked out. Like, bigger than our dinner book.
NA: We purposefully did not reach out to any press about this. We didn’t want to make a big deal about it. We really just wanted it to be a casual mention on our Instagram. And we thought that maybe our followers and the people in the neighborhood who followed us would come in and be like, “Oh, this is a fun idea.”
I guess. In some ways, any press is good press because it just creates more awareness about your restaurant. But in this particular case, it’s created a nuisance.
In 2020, I talked to a lot of people, both those who were running businesses and working at them, about SLA enforcement COVID restrictions. There was a lot of frustration at the time.
NJ: I mean, with all the city departments. It’s been disappointing throughout the duration of COVID to not feel like you have a voice or a place to go to ask an honest question to the Department of Transportation, the Department of Health, the SLA. There’s no real way for operators to just get clean, concise information from these departments. They just send their volunteers or representatives or investigators out to ticket, cite, and generate revenue from our businesses for the city and the state.
Again, I don’t want to call this “bottomless brunch” because that’s not the right way to put it. But would you ever try to do this “the right way,” or do you feel like you can’t because of the attention that’s already on you?
NJ: I mean, we definitely aren’t going to push alcohol. I think this will quiet us down a little bit. We’ll just continue operating as we do. We are a café–wine bar. We are a full-service restaurant. We are training our staff daily on food ingredients and wines from around the world. We have an extensive educational program that is built into our daily operation. This is not a cheap bar where people are throwing up in the bathroom. The intention for this drink special, regardless of what happened, was for this to last for the month of January. So regardless of what the outcome of this is, it would’ve ended anyway. It’s not unlimited. It is very limited, as a matter of fact.