Ten years ago, your cell phone had buttons and you had to go to a place where the bartenders wore bowties if you wanted a quality cocktail. But now you can find good drinks all over the place - and that means you don’t have to pay $20 for a well-made Old Fashioned, or dress like you’re going to an interview in order to get one. Whether you’re with a date or a couple of people you see at work every day, here are a bunch of solid places for a casual cocktail.
You could walk by Primo’s several thousand times and never realize it was there. And that’s part of why we like this place. It’s a semi-hidden cocktail bar in Tribeca filled with modernist paintings and colorful velvet furniture, and it’s a good spot for when you need to impress someone who might one day leave a toothbrush at your apartment. Come on a weeknight and it should be pretty mellow (on the weekends it gets a bit more crowded).
Katana Kitten is a Japanese-themed bar in the West Village, and they serve cocktails with ingredients like salted plum, shiso, and yuzu. We especially like the gin and tonic that comes in a frosty mug - although whatever you order, you’ll probably want several rounds of it. To help you drink more, there’s some great bar food like a burger with pickled pineapple and fries covered in seaweed flakes. And if you don’t enjoy natural light, there’s a little basement space filled with tables and vintage posters, too.
Walk into Bar Beau on a Saturday night, and you’ll probably get a seat. This is remarkable because a) it’s in a busy part of Williamsburg, b) the cocktails are excellent, and c) this place is better-looking than most other spots in the neighborhood (although from the outside it doesn’t look like much). The big back room feels like a minimalist hotel lounge that happens to be in a cave, and there’s both a long bar and a good number of tables where you can sit with a date, have some drinks, and eat snack-sized things like chicken liver mousse and scallop fritters.
Some nights, you might dream about a neighborhood bar with big windows and diner-style stools where you can sit down and order a casual tiki drink at 5pm. Well, good news: that bar exists, and it’s called King Tai. This is a little place in Crown Heights that looks like a cross between a 1950s soda fountain and something you’d find near a white-sand beach, and it’s a great neighborhood spot to hang out and make new friends.
The cocktails at Bearded Lady are also tiki-inspired, and they’re as good as they come. If you’ve never had a Painkiller before, order one here. It’s like a pina colada, but for people who aren’t on a beach in Florida in 1975. This is a nice little neighborhood bar in Prospect Heights, and it doesn’t get too crazy on weekends. Also, the bar seats are comfortable (and very yellow), and there’s a pool table in the back.
Mother’s Ruin is very close to the ideal casual cocktail bar. They serve excellent drinks, and you can come here in sweats (as long as you haven’t actually been working out). This is a welcoming little bar on Spring Street where drinks don’t cost a fortune and they even serve some decent food. So stop by and get a slushy with some alcohol in it. It’ll probably be crowded, because plenty of people like it for all the same reasons we do.
We once had a cocktail with “gummy bear vodka” here. We wouldn’t recommend it - but we respect the fact that they took a risk, and our other cocktails here have been perfectly good. Mostly, we like this place because it’s a tropical-themed bar with plenty of seating where you can hang out with a small group or a first date in Astoria. There are also little plates like pork buns and fried chicken for when you accidentally order a drink with gummy bear vodka and need to taste something different.
If you’re in Bed-Stuy looking for a cocktail, try Casablanca. It’s a little bar with old-timey chandeliers and walls with chipped paint, and it kind of looks like it should be haunted. It’s perfect for a low-key cocktail on a weeknight, and it gets pretty lively (with a DJ) on weekends. Get something in a martini glass and spill it on someone while you dance. That’s a called a meet-cute.
Hotel Delmano might be the best date spot in Williamsburg. It’s dark and cozy, and there’s a no-standing policy that keeps things from getting out of hand. They also make a lot of good cocktails here, and there are snacks like meat, cheese, and oysters. Also, this place sort of feels like a little hotel that hasn’t been renovated in a century (in a charming sort of way). Bring your date (and have a decent personality), and you’ll be ahead of the curve.
The Owl’s Tail
The Upper West Side has a lot of things going for it (like nice parks and a museum full of dinosaur bones), but you probably don’t go out of your way to drink there. If you do find yourself in the area and you want cool place for some low-key cocktails, head directly to The Owl’s Tail. It’s a small place decorated like the common area of a very nice condo building, and it’s just about the exact opposite of Jake’s Dilemma (a nearby bar with foosball and beer pong).
If you need a first-date spot in the East Village, come here. The space isn’t huge, but there’s a long bar and a few booths that are perfect for getting to know someone you may or may not ever see again. There’s also a semi-secret counter-service spot in the back serving fairly decent tacos.
The Garret in the East Village is a slightly better date spot, but the Nolita location is very useful when you need a cool place to get weeknight drinks with someone in the area. It’s a small space filled with potted plants and a couple of booths, and they make some good cocktails. Get here early to guarantee yourself a seat, and be aware that this place gets very busy on the weekend.
Our favorite place to drink on the Upper East Side just might be the little lounge area at the entrance to Jack & Fanny’s. It has two couches and a non-functional fireplace, and we could hang out there for several hours. But if you show up and the couches are taken, there’s plenty of other seating in the back. There’s also a good cocktail called the “Boulevardi-hayyyyyy,” as well as a bocce court for anyone who, against all odds, knows how to play bocce.
The Wayland is an East Village classic that we probably talk about too much. But if you’re looking for a well-made cocktail and a friendly neighborhood atmosphere, it’s one of your best options. It looks a little like an upstate cabin owned by a writer who’s married to an interior designer, and it’s exactly the sort of place you wish you had in your neighborhood.
Robert Bar is very much a neighborhood spot, but they take their drinks very seriously here. By which we mean, they serve a bunch of house cocktails that you’ll actually want to drink. Although if you just want to have a shot and a beer while you play a round of darts, you can do that, too. The next time you go to a Nets game at the Barclays Center and afterwards need a place to discuss your constant disappointment with the Nets, come here.
Dante is equal parts restaurant and bar. But after 10pm, it’s mostly just a bar. The cocktail list is extensive, and they do some interesting things with Campari. So if you’re a negroni fan, this is the place. Or if you like frozen grapes in your drink, they have those, too. This place tends to stay pretty crowded, but it never gets out of control, and you can usually find a bar seat or two.
Invite someone to June Wine Bar, and they’ll probably assume you’re asking them on a date. That’s just the general feel of the place. It’s small and dark with brick walls and a long marble bar, and the atmosphere will probably make you want to buy a dog with whoever you’re sitting next to. That being said, it also works perfectly well for some drinks with a friend or two, and you can get beer and cocktails in addition to wine.
Fresh Kills Bar
Fresh Kills is one of the top cocktail bars in Williamsburg, although it isn’t the sort of place where you have to wear business casual and make a reservation several weeks in advance. Mostly, it’s just a neighborhood spot that happens to have some very good drinks, and it’s great for when you get tired of consuming pitchers of beer and long for something better. It’s a narrow space about the size of a modest fallout shelter, and it can fill up quickly, but if you get here early, you can usually claim a big booth.
Here’s a fun fact: if a bartender can make a sazerac, that’s a decent bartender. You probably won’t want a sazerac when you come to St. Mazie, but it’s nice to know the bartenders here can make one. This place does serious cocktails in a laidback atmosphere, and if you just want a beer or a shot, no one’s going to judge you. They also host live music, and there’s a backyard for summertime drinking. Just be aware that at any given time, 95% of the people here will be on dates.
At Yours Sincerely, all the drinks are on tap, and the cocktails come in beakers. If that sounds gimmicky, that’s because it is. But beakers also make for some pretty practical glassware, and it’s fun to drink out of things you used to use in science class. The space is dark and narrow, and there aren’t many tables, but it’s a good place to impress someone who doesn’t know that this bar exists.
We’re going to go out on a limb and assume that Caledonia is owned by the same people behind The Hamilton because a) they have a large supply of whiskeys, and b) they have a very similar set of house rules. This is also the sort of pub where you can order a cocktail and not feel like a jerk. They won’t mind making you a Manhattan, and you can safely bring either your parents or a date.
Bondurants is a neighborhood bar on the Upper East Side that specializes in bourbon and the sort of food you want to eat alongside it (pimento cheese, tater tots, deviled eggs, etc.). The American whiskey list here is extensive, but if that isn’t your thing, they also have a good number of craft beers on tap.