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 vodka—by 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 pitcher—it’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’S in 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 time—which 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 duo—the 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 eats—various stews scooped up with injera, a fermented pancake-like bread. “Play it again, Selassie,” says Spartos, taking another swig.