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First, the bad news: Drinks are getting more expensive. There are no new dives. Then there's the alarming trend of the "unmarked" bar. Since when did owners find it profitable to keep potential customers pacing the block? Such venues usually rely on some sort of gimmick: the promise of alcoholic enlightenment, digital-underground access, celebrity hobnobbing. Fortunately for Liquid City, these recent additions are also wildly different. With such variety and unassuming service, you'll never resign yourself to a screwdriver again.

Eastern chic meets East Village freak at FORBIDDEN CITY (212 Avenue A, 598-0500), where the sake overfloweth. Communal tables, running water, gilded dragons, and blissed-out Buddhas lend themselves to the Benihana mystique, while the potent cocktails (with such cute names as Cock Fighter and Macho Dancer) promise healthy doses of sexual fortitude. Recommended from the list of liquid Viagra: the Lover ($8), a spicy blend of shochu, calamansi lime, and bits of ginger blended with crushed ice, and In the Mood for Love ($8), a martini garnished with lychee—an eyeball-like fruit juicier than the ripest of mangoes. Best of all are the dozen or so kinds of sake, poured into cube-shaped cups and generously sloshing into the surrounding bowls. After blankly staring at the pools of rice wine artistically displayed before us, we hailed the bartender and were promptly instructed on how to properly drain them. (Drink from the cup. When the cup is empty, replenish it with the contents of the bowl.) The Kaori ($7) was strong yet crisp; the Ginkobai ($10), plummy and sweet. Where else can you get giddy with Siddhartha to the theme from Cops?

Smoky video projections fill the cleverly divided space of OPENAIR (121 St. Marks Place, 979-1459). The front room houses a packed bar while the back lounge is tripped out with flashing lights reminiscent of an Andromeda Strain seizure, mod sectional furniture, and a DJ booth that emitted dub and world beat to mixed results on a recent Friday. (The space also hosts house, tech-house, and electro nights; call for lineups.) An absurdly busy cocktail waitress stalks the hallway—a futuristic bar car lined with seats, tables, and video screens—which connects the two areas as she delivers Corona and Heineken bottles ($5) to a multiculti crowd that has little interest in posing. Team colors blurred when patrons of various stripes got chatty on the divans. Is that a wall of water or are hipsters more transparent than we thought?

Sake to me!: go with the flow at Forbidden City.
photo: Bryce Lankard
Sake to me!: go with the flow at Forbidden City.

Smiling and attractive bar staff in eggplant coordinates await at THOMS' BAR (60 Thompson Street, 219-2000). Tucked inside the latest Soho boutique hotel, Thoms' combines the charms of the Bank of New York (leather club chairs, marble walls, golden throw pillows), Bohemian Grove (driftwood lamps, animal-skin rugs, sepia-hued couches), and Bed, Bath & Beyond (candles, blond wood bar stools, nearly hip yet strangely inoffensive music) to great effect. Try the signature Thom ($10; Sky Citrus, lime, fresh mint) or a half-bottle of Veuve Clicquot ($44) to truly experience this bland oasis. Better yet, hop in a taxi and head to the St. Regis KING COLE BAR (2 East 55th Street, 339-6721), where the well-tailored cocktails arrive with lovely silver trays heaped with macadamia nuts and wasabi peas. Why pay uptown prices for downtown knockoffs when you can taste the real thing?

 
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