Whisk Back to 1915 Midtown Manhattan and Enjoy a Cold One at Tanner Smith's

Cocktail setup at Tanner Smith's
Cocktail setup at Tanner Smith's
Photo Keven Doherty

It may seem bold to name your bar after a century-old felon, but for Andrew Schulman, the owner and general manager of Tanner Smith's (204 West 55th Street; 646-590-2034), the inspiration far exceeds any brutish allure.

In 1910, New York gangster and stevedore Thomas "Tanner" Smith made one of the earliest cries against police brutality after a scuffle with the NYPD left him battered and bruised from whacks with a billy club. Order No. 7, passed by then-mayor William Jay Gaynor, prohibited an officer from using his club unless life-threatening danger could be proved. Smith himself went on to reform, eventually choosing community service over hooliganism, until his death in 1919, just a year shy of Prohibition.

"It's a great character to work from — you have somebody who has seen both sides," says Schulman of the redemptive mobster. "A native New Yorker, from the time when this building was built. It gave us a period of time to develop the locus on the cocktail lists. And he died in a card game, so he knew how to have a little fun."

The influence of the original Smith exudes out of the walls in this delectable midtown Manhattan establishment, which opened in early April. Exposed brick and dim lighting foster a pleasing atmosphere that would rival any swanky barroom circa 1900. Running parallel to the top-floor bar is a classic Singer sewing machine (a member of the Singer family lived in the building back when the real Smith roamed the streets outside), and down below, where horses once lived, is the coolly charming Winona Room. Nine Jim Beam bourbon barrels hang mounted off in the corner, as if they were prized game slain in some great hunt for libation.

The cocktail menu is divided, one part offering classics with a creative twist, like a riff on a Dark & Stormy called the Swizzle ($12; rum, fresh lime juice, lemon jam, and Q ginger beer). The other part lists three barrel-aged and smoked drinks — Stevedores. Here, the old-fashioned has been adapted into the Winona ($14), with maple syrup hooking up with bourbon. Bitters are presented on the side, in a smoky bottle that allows customers to judge for themselves when the drink has reached its almighty potential.

Schulman says he likes to cater to convenience. All 24 beer taps (23 crafts, one Stella Artois) are domestically and internationally curated and linked to an automated system running out of the walk-in freezer that keeps a tab on each one. Every tenth of an ounce poured is recorded and converted into statistics that Schulman can use later for tracking sales and management. The system also allows him to observe the preferences of larger parties. Upon their return to Tanner Smith's, he's ready with an extra keg of Lagunitas to accommodate any potential surge.

"To me that's invaluable; you get a feel for your customer base in a way that...help[s] create some intuition and some science for what you're going to do next and what you're going to propose to people," he says.

Although Tanner Smith's food offerings are the kind typically reserved for complementing drinks, there's no lacking in ideas or preparations. "We like to say we're a bar with really great food," says Schulman. The menu options revolve around international tastes, ranging from nachos to burgers and fries, and are portioned generously enough to serve as main dishes for passing around the table.

Tanner Smith's is a far cry from an Irish pub, but the bar staff and Schulman's partners are of Irish descent. Kevin Doherty moved from Ireland to the States about six months ago and acts as the bar's — for lack of a better term — mixologist (he has his reasons for despising that label). Doherty's job is to continue burnishing Tanner Smith's by producing short videos detailing the stories behind each drink, screened on the handful of televisions scattered about the bar, as well as to craft fresh, original cocktails.

His next drink will build around the Glendalough Single Malt Irish Whiskey and will be titled "Order No. 7," completing yet another cycle of influence from one generation of New Yorkers to another.

Follow Silas Valentino on Twitter, @SilasValentino


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