At this juncture in New York City’s cocktail revival, it’s difficult to imagine that the establishments that sprung up in the last 10 years have missed covering any part of the cocktail canon. Not only are there bars dedicated to tequila, whiskey, gin, bitters, and chartreuse, just about every era of booze history in this country has been channeled somewhere, from the late 19th century (our nation’s first cocktail heyday) to the speakeasy Prohibition years to the post-WWII tiki craze. Until last week, though, there was at least one exception: Unless you stumbled into a fusty old spot that hadn’t been updated for 40 years, you’d be hard-pressed to find a bar paying homage to the ’70s.
Perhaps that’s because for a long time, the decade was one bartenders preferred to ignore: The cocktails consumed during those years (when they were consumed at all) were often sweet, simple, and vodka-based (and vodka, you might have noticed, has been the subject of ridicule from some mixologists in recent years). Sometimes referred to as the Dark Ages of spirits, it was during those years that we lost much of our connection to our drink-crafting past, and it wasn’t until Dale DeGroff and his cohorts started picking up the history books in the ’80s that booze started to make a comeback.
That doesn’t faze barman Giuseppe Gonzalez or cocktail historian Greg Boehm, the guys behind the Golden Cadillac (13 First Avenue, 646-924-8153), a just-opened bar in the East Village splashed in disco-era touches that puts the cocktails from those years front and center.
Gonzalez — whose impressive resume includes stints behind the stick at Clover Club and ownership of PKNY — says he built this bar because he loves the era, but not in the way we’d imagine. “The city was a shitbox back then,” he says. “My grandfather was shot in ’74 when he was working in a bodega. I had an uncle get killed. But the people that sprung from it were resilient — that was classic New York, and it crystallized what it meant to be a New Yorker and not only survive, but thrive.” He points to many examples: The I Love NY logo came out of those years to boost the city’s morale and pride, Martin Scorcese was inspired to make seven movies about the era, punk and hip hop were born, and — in the mixology world — Dale DeGroff started bartending. “People lived in a cesspool, but they still managed to make the city beautiful, and they still affect what happens in the world,” he explains. And that’s what he, a native New Yorker, wanted to pay respect to.
On the surface, the spot is very much a throwback to the era: Art deco touches adorn the dark space, which glows under orange and yellow neon lights. Loud ’70s music plays through the speakers. And the monster cocktail list deals in drinks like the minty hot grasshopper, Long Island iced tea, and the golden cadillac, a cream and Galliano blend.
But to brush the era of the bar off just because it’s out of style, he says, is unfair. “It’s tough because the cocktail menu is actually geeky, but I know it comes off a little kitsch,” he says. “There’s a cosmo in there, and people say, ‘Oh, that must just be in there as a joke.’ But it’s an important drink, man. The cosmo and the sour apple martini were the most made drinks in the 1980s. They invigorated a whole industry.”
Moreover, that’s not what bartending — nor this bar — is really about: “This is how I think of bartending in general,” he explains. “I ask, ‘Do you consider yourself a mixologist or bartender?’ 99 percent say, ‘I’m a bartender!’ Then I ask, ‘So do you think the drinks were better in the ’70s or now?’ And they say, ‘Obviously now; we have access to all these things they didn’t have.’ So I ask, ‘Well does that make the bartenders in the ’70s worse than now?’ What makes a good bartender? At the end of the day, it’s a question of hospitality. You have to be able to work a room, have fun, and not be pretentious. When I think of the ’70s bar and the modern bar, who was more in tune? I think the ’70s bar. Those guys were working stiffs. They didn’t have a brand ambassador gig or an international competition to rush off to. Their bread and butter was taking care of people.”
And that, more than anything, is what he’s trying to channel here: “At the Cadillac, we’re not emphasizing cocktail technique. I’m a secret geek, and I want everything to be perfect, but with my bartenders, I want them to know everyone’s name rather than how to make a perfect Manhattan. And that’s because if your bartender’s a prick, you’re not going to come back. My mother was a hairdresser, and my father was a bartender. You get a hairdresser, and that one person cuts your hair for 20 years. It was the same thing with a bartender.”
That explanation is more than enough for the industry members and fooderati who’ve been packing the place since opening; when we stopped by during the early evening on Sunday, nearly every stool was full. It helps, of course, that the drinks list pairs to a roster of food inspired by old Gourmet magazines — think steak Diane, oysters Rockefeller, and knish fondue — from Maharlika and Jeepney chef Miguel Trinidad — who, incidentally, grew up two blocks away from this joint — that’s served until half an hour before the bar closes.
And the bar runs deep in talent: Gonzalez says Boehm’s wealth of knowledge offers the spot extraordinary depth. “I’ll be like, ‘Greg, I had this drink at this bar three years ago; do you know what it is?'” he explains. “And he’ll be like, ‘Yeah, I’ll bring you the recipe.'” The crew also brought on James Tune, who did years at the Pegu Club, as general manager. “He’s the guy who makes it all work,” says Gonzalez.
So what does Gonzalez drink when he goes out? “I drink vodka soda,” he says. “Please print that.” He’s a type one diabetic, he explains, which also saves him from going down the path of alcoholism, a danger of working in the industry.
The Golden Cadillac is open 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Sunday through Wednesday and 5 p.m. to 4 a.m. Thursday through Saturday.