“It’s not illegal,” says our host of the tumblers brimming with cloudy, jade-colored liquid before us. He and the bartender have just finished the rather elaborate ritual of absinthe preparation, involving decorative spoons, sugar cubes, flame, water, and of course, the hallucinatory liquor most famously sipped by Van Gogh in 19th-century Parisian cafés. But the glasses of absinthe ($7) served at ASSENZIO WINE BAR (205 East 4th Street, 677-9466) actually contain Absente, a new brand that preempts skeptics on its Web site with the following caveat: “We know what you’re thinking. Absinthe has been banned in the United States since 1915 because people were hallucinating and having too much fun.” Regular clairvoyants they are! Their dirty secret: They replace the traditional, trippy wormwood with southernwood, an impotent botanical cousin. Still, the bitter anise taste and high alcohol content make the drink similar to the chartreuse stuff one can, ahem, easily smuggle home from a jaunt to, say, Ibiza—just without the warm and tingly side effects. And if flying the faux green fairy isn’t your style, there’s always a shot of mirto ($6), a more palatable berry herbal liquor from Sardinia, or a good bottle of Sangiovese red ($34). Either would be apropos at this intimate and rustic cash-only Italian inn.
For 19th-century flavor, Edith Wharton-style, tighten your corset at VANDERBILT STATION (4 Park Avenue, 889-3369). Here, the green fairy would be of great service, shape-shifting Long Island executives into pale, otherworldly creatures with tiny waists. You’ll have to make do with a $12 Gilded Vanderbilt, a heady blend of Tanqueray Sterling vodka, Grand Marnier, Galliano, and a liberal splash of sparkly Moët. When you pay this much for a cocktail, it’s the little extras that count, and the glum bartender dutifully performed them—pre-icing the martini glass, caressing its rim with an orange peel, and delivering an accompanying basket of peppery, just cooked potato chips. But he—blasphemy!—made the gauche mistake of shaking my companion’s Tanqueray martini ($10) into oblivion: Imitating the movie Cocktail results in an ice-flecked, watered-down potion, doesn’t he know? A strict no-smoking policy adds to the uptight aura, but the street-level view of Park Avenue and the intricate, arched tiled ceiling reminiscent of the Oyster Bar smack unmistakably of class.
The 21st-century bohemians at STARFOODS RESTAURANT (64 East 1st Street, 260-3116) are also obsessed with class: Bartenders in trucker caps and faux-hawks serve up cans of trashy beer from every corner of the continent (Tecate, $4; PBR, $3), while the menu specializes in the culinary delights of poor people (fried chicken and waffles, $14). Yes, the two sources for New York magazine’s latest Billyburg trend piece—crack is back, didn’t you know?—would love this place. As my drinking buddy put it, “If hipness were contagious, I’d be hip right now.” That said, the waiter was pretty nice, considering there were only three of us loafing in a big, cushy bar booth that could fit six, easy. And while they weren’t green, the vaguely cinnamon-y, highly alcoholic pints of Big Red ($7), the bar’s signature mystery mix, weren’t bad either. Oh, and we hear the neighborhood’s top-notch when it comes to scoring rock, too.