This is not a guide to the best martinis in New York City. This is a guide to the best places in New York City for when your shirt is tucked in and you’re feeling dignified. For when the fiery capitalist spirit is melting your soul. Or for when you just read a page of War and Peace after getting out of the sauna, and now you need to rehydrate.
And that’s because martini is a mood. It doesn’t matter if the glass was pre-chilled or if you prefer it dry, dirty, shaken, stirred, with gin, or with vodka. What matters is the setting in which you drink it. And, of course, the martini has to be great too. These are the best bars and restaurants for when you’re in the mood for a martini.
Martinis taste best with white tablecloths and someone playing the piano. You’ll get both at Bemelmans Bar, inside the Carlyle Hotel on the Upper East Side. Despite the outrageously high drink prices, you should go out of your way for a martini here, because Bemelmans is an iconic NYC experience. And because if you’re lucky, Bill Murray might also be having a martini in the corner while someone plays the piano. You could eat a full meal if you wanted to, but that’s not necessary when the best edible thing here is the free snack mix that’s on every table.
You could walk by Anyway Cafe in the East Village for years without ever noticing it. But after your first sip of dill or black pepper-infused vodka at this Russian bar and restaurant, it’ll be top of mind whenever you want to get vaguely drunk on martinis while sedentary (there’s no standing room here). Everyone in this place seems to be ordering martinis in multiples of at least two, and when the server brings yours over, you’ll have to lean over and sip like a cat to avoid sloshing it all over your candle-lit table. The live accordion or Spanish guitar might tempt you to order a third, but be careful. A wise stranger at a table over once gave us some good advice: “Martinis are like nipples, you should only have two.”
The Grill feels like the kind of place where Roger Sterling would go for a three-martini lunch, or The Rat Pack would smoke cigars all night at a booth in the corner. In other words, this steakhouse in the old Four Seasons space in Midtown makes you feel like you’re a bigger deal than you actually are. While the square bar isn’t as fancy or heavy on production value as the dining room, it overlooks the dark, attractive space, and is a good way to feel important without committing to a whole (very expensive) dinner. Order a Tuxedo, which has fino sherry in it, an Alaska, which is made with chartreuse, or anything else from Grill’s martini menu.
A foolproof way to justify all of your turtlenecks is by drinking martinis at Smoke on Broadway and 106th on the Upper West Side. It’s a little jazz club that brings in noteworthy musicians from all over the world to play on an intimate red-curtained stage. If you want to eat dinner while catching a show, we recommend making a reservation in advance to ensure a table. But you could also show up, sit at the bar, and fall into a conversation with an ex-mayor of Philadelphia or someone else who could probably give you some good life advice.
Drinking a martini often feels like a special occasion. But when you’re drinking one at Bernie’s, you’ll ask yourself why you don’t do this every day. This place is designed to feel like Greenpoint’s Cheers - with red-and-white checked tablecloths, red shiny booths, TVs behind the bar, and a menu full of things like ribs, caesar salad, steak, and burgers. There’s no cocktail list, but when you look around the room, you will see many, many martinis. The Bernie’s version is $12, comes out very cold, and is the perfect accompaniment to a basket of mozzarella sticks.
Tourists come to Balthazar for the servers in white jackets, red leather banquettes, brass mirrors, and steak frites. But you should be coming for a martini at the bar. There’s no better place to take in the blur of the city, especially when you’re feeling grumpy in Soho and nothing will make you feel better than sitting on a stool and glaring at strangers. This is also a smart way to experience this legendary French restaurant without paying $30 for a chicken breast.
Peter Luger opened in 1887, which is the same year that the martini was invented. Is that a coincidence? Yes, it is. And it’s also just another reason to come to this classic place to drink a classic cocktail. Order from the bow-tied bartender in the bar room and take in the crowd of tourists and regulars eagerly awaiting their chance to eat at this old-school Williamsburg steakhouse. Once you’re seated, finish your martini, or drink another one, as your server refers to the pool of juice around your porterhouse as “vitamins.”
People don’t really do cocaine in the bathroom at The Odeon anymore, but they still do drink martinis at the bar. While The Odeon has moved more towards Tribeca families having brunch and away from SNL cast members hanging out with Basquiat over the years, this restaurant still retains its classic NYC-ness. The food is just OK, so it’s really best used as a place to drink a martini and eat some oysters while debating whether or not NYC was actually better in the ’80s.
Even if you’re a gin person, you come to this festive, windowless bar in the Theater District to drink vodka - preferably in martini form. There are over 50 kinds on the menu, so it’s fun to try one you’ve never seen before. After your first sip or two, you’ll realize that most of the other people are speaking Russian, maybe even to you. Valentine’s Day decorations are still up even when it’s nowhere close to Valentine’s Day. And the guy playing the piano while wailing in Russian gets up to smoke a cigarette every three songs. Before you can make sense of it all, the bartender will likely top you off with whatever is left in her shaker. (We don’t waste vodka in Russia, she’ll say.)
Even if the legend is true and the Bloody Mary was really invented here, King Cole Bar - an extremely fancy cocktail bar inside the St. Regis Hotel - feels much more like a place to drink a martini. The fur coats and businesspeople who probably should’ve gone to bed two drinks ago make for very good people watching, and the leather bar seats and booths with table service make King Cole Bar a good option for a date in Midtown.
Hotel Delmano is not, in fact, a hotel. But we wish it was, because we’d like to move in. This is one of the best cocktail bars in Williamsburg, located close enough to the Bedford L that it’s a convenient meet-up spot, but far away enough that tourists don’t seem to find their way here too often. While you could come to Delmano with a few friends and order rounds of creative (but not too creative) cocktails, it’s really best for a date or solo-drinking something classic. And that something should be a martini.
Clover Club in Cobble Hill is the kind of place that will suddenly help you understand how robber barons must feel. As you look around at the curtain-covered windows and the working fireplace and the red leather booths, you’ll feel ready to take on an antitrust case. Or at least drink another martini - their excellent classic one comes with equal parts dry and sweet vermouth.
Drinking a martini at Minetta Tavern will make you want to twist the mustache you don’t have. While you could grab a drink at the bar, you should get a dinner reservation so that you can sit in one of the red booths where you can tell a server in a vest that you’d like some meat. The best way to settle in and make the most of the white tablecloths, checkered floors, and celebrity caricatures is with a cold martini. A beer wouldn’t do the $33 Black Label Burger justice anyway.
Whether you need to unwind after getting hit in the ankle with a very colorful tricycle, or you’re looking for a really good late-night drink that’s not just a glass of whiskey in your living room, Blueprint is where you should get a martini around Park Slope. The dark, narrow bar serves some of the best cocktails in Brooklyn, and after the crowds waiting for tables at Al Di La empty out, it becomes a great place to have a solo drink and some snacks. Unlike most places in the neighborhood, it stays open until 2am even during the week.
Harry’s is a classic steakhouse a block from Wall Street that tends to be filled with people who look like they took off their ties on the walk over. Join them in the dark, slightly underground dining room if you want to pair your martini with oysters Rockefeller and dry-aged filet mignon - or if you just want a drink after work, get a bar seat in the casual bar room. The martini here is old-school in that it’s relatively heavy on vermouth, and it comes with a sidecar on ice.
Keens has been around for more than 130 years, and the ceilings of this Midtown steakhouse are covered with the smoking pipes of former regulars like Teddy Roosevelt and Babe Ruth. In other words, this isn’t the kind of place where you ask the bartender what types of West Coast-style IPAs they have. You order a classic martini, and you drink it while eating a two-pound mutton chop.