Bizarrely enough, one of the last refuges of classic cocktails like the Harvey Wallbanger has become the liquor-licensed diner, serving the type of mixed drinks most recently enjoyed by Great-Aunt Jackie and her thirsty dentures. Makes sense: Unlike trendy bars, greasy spoons never had to trail the next new thing (saketinis, pomegranate, vodka infused by a rare herb harvested in a Spanish village by a single midget peasant named Pedro). Diners hover in a time freeze where flirtinis never quite made their way onto the menu.
But are diner cocktails any good? Lord only knows that Diner Piña Colada lies in the land of Ferociously Bad Idea next to Chili’s southwestern egg roll and the Applebee’s boneless wing. But because we have no respect for our bodies, we ordered one a few weeks back at Moonstruck Diner (449 Third Avenue) and were amazed to discover a frothy concoction of real coconut créme, pineapple juice, and rum. (If anyone had carte blanche to haul out the $2.99 piña colada mix—the one that’s been molding over on the shelf for three years—it’s Moonstruck.) We tossed a dry burger aside and looked across the table, where our friend was making her way through a gin and tonic so stiff it could walk out and hail a cab home on its own. Had we hit on something special? Stroking the plastic diner menu now, we fantasized about this new role as culinary conquistador. Others could have their zillion-dollar foie gras burgers; had they known a Brandy Alexander with corned beef hash?
We expanded the experiment out to Queens.
Mark Twain Diner in Jackson Heights (72-12 Northern Boulevard
) boasts a mirror with etched drawings of a ferryboat and the visage of what looks like Mark Twain after one unbelievable bong hit. It also has a list of cocktails rarely seen outside a bartending manual. The bar itself was fairly small, a few glass shelves near the cash register decorated with toy cars and manned by a kindly looking Grandma sort. Our first drinks (a Tom Collins and a tequila sunrise) came out perfectly fine and were respectable accompaniments to a BLT and fries—but the second order caused our bartender distress. Individual-serving sizes of half-and-half were delivered from the kitchen as a Bartending Brain Trust (waitress, Grams, random employee) formed to consult on the proper way to concoct a Brandy Alexander and a Grasshopper. The Grasshopper tasted, our friend said, “like mouthwash syrup.”
Higher hopes were had for Vegas Diner in Bensonhurst (1619 86th Street), a larger, more elaborate diner that features Lupe Fiasco on the individual CD jukeboxes; dessert cases with freakishly high lemon meringue pies; and last but not least, paper place mats with recipes for the 25-plus classic drinks they offered. Alas, there was middling success: The strawberry daiquiri tasted exactly like those Icee pops you eat when you’re five and spend half the time trying to push out of the wrapper; we baby-sipped the Rob Roy, a combo of vermouth and Scotch that burned like rubbing alcohol. A sampling of the Harvey Wallbanger and it was easy to see why some old-school drinks fall from grace. (What kind of asshole adds Galliano to a screwdriver?).