By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
The power of alcohol lies in its ability to transform. Take Spartos, for instance. Normally, she's a mild-mannered editor taken to wearing unfashionable eyeglasses. After a drink or three, she's something of a social butterfly, throwing off the spectacles and bumping into tables. Who needs glasses when you've got what's commonly known as "beer goggles"?
The world somehow looks livelier following a minty mojito ($8) at CALLE OCHO(446 Columbus Avenue, 873-5025). It's Cuba by way of Miami via the Upper West Side: The heady mix of rum, palm trees, fresh flowers, propeller-sized fans, and lime-green walls makes Spartos think she's on some sort of tropical runway. "Boy, am I ready for takeoff!" exclaims Spartos. She slurps a fruity Calle Ocho ($8), which tastes like Malibu crossed with Midori, and a punchy Latinopolitan ($9), which substitutes Bacardi Limón for the usual vodkaby now, Spartos is definitely feeling the wind in her hair. So she's disappointed by the crash landing brought on by a very watery, somewhat mango-y Daiquiri Helado ($8) and a grape-juice-like red sangria ($6; try the $28 pitcherit's made from a different recipe and tastes much better). There's nothing like a little turbulence to cloud one's vision.
At the HOWARD JOHNSON'Sin Times Square (1551 Broadway, 354-1445), the bartender wears an aqua uniform, addresses you as "Honey," and offers you tiny ceramic saucers to ash in. Spartos likes to spend a Saturday afternoon at the whimsical '50s throwback, gazing at tourists dining in the orange banquettes and dreaming she's a housewife who loves a good party and mixing martinis in her free timewhich means often. William DeVaughn's "Be Thankful for What You Got" is playing over the speakers, and there's a free buffet offering Swedish meatballs and tasty little tuna sandwiches. "Would you like gin or vodka? An olive or an onion?" practices a Ho-Joed Spartos to her imaginary dinner guest, as she sips on another icy, luscious piña colada ($6.50).
Spartos has only a vague idea of what East Africa is like; in her mind, it's a Muslim version of Casablanca. So entering the hip, young Ethiopian expat culture of QUEEN OF SHEBA(650 Tenth Avenue, 397-0610) seems like a revelation. It's a small, dim, flickering place, with exposed brick and golden yellow walls. "Did Band Aid members even have a clue when they recorded 'Do They Know It's Christmas?' " asks Spartos. Packed on a recent Saturday night, the restaurant becomes a nightclub around 11, when tables are moved to accommodate a keyboard-and-vocals duothe atonal wails becoming more and more beautiful to Spartos's tuned ears. But Spartos finds her real love connection with the malty, unpasteurized, and absolutely delicious St. George micro-beer ($5), which is brewed in the States, Ethiopian style. It pairs deliciously with the spicy mesob-center eatsvarious stews scooped up with injera, a fermented pancake-like bread. "Play it again, Selassie," says Spartos, taking another swig.