We recently visited Nitecap to see what founders Natasha David, Alex Day, and David Kaplan were up to on the LES. In this interview, David reveals the colors that inspire her cocktails, why you should laugh at the bar’s menu, and her night cap of record.
It was during your time as a theater student at NYU that you took your first job bartending. Have you found any kind of overlap between bartending and your theater background?
Absolutely. I grew up in a very artistic household; both of my parents are classical musicians. I’ve always been involved in music, theater, and the arts, in general, so I’ve always felt that I need an outlet to express myself artistically. Bartending, and especially craft bartending, is an incredible creative outlet. Coming up with drinks is incredibly creative, and I am somebody who likes to work with their hands — so there’s that aspect, too. And there’s definitely a performance aspect involved in being behind the bar.
How would you describe your process for coming up with new drinks?
I don’t know if it makes sense to other people, but the way I come up with drinks is by thinking of colors and moods, and how they relate to each other. If you see some of my drinks, everything in it doesn’t necessarily make sense on paper, but everything will be grape-based or it’ll all be green grape-based. Or, I think of certain colors that might go really well with certain flavors.
Is there a drink or two on the menu that screams “Natasha David”?
I think the Criminal Appeal very much screams my name — it’s gin, coconut-infused pamplemousse, Aperol, lemon juice, and salt. Another drink that is a good example of that process is the Green Thumb. I knew I wanted to put a drink on the menu with cachaça, and this particular cachaça makes me think of rain and grass. So that drink turned into a fennel sour with cachaça.
What were you and the Nitecap team hoping to offer patrons when opening the bar?
I think something that I really appreciate about this bar is that it’s really a dream collaboration between me and my two partners Alex [Day] and Dave [Kaplan]. Our personalities mesh very well together, and we really wanted this bar to very much be an expression of us. We didn’t want to have a bar with a theme — we just wanted it to be fun. At the end of the day, we’re making cocktails — and it’s a luxury to be able to provide something like that. Even though we’re doing all the serious work in the background, let’s not have it come across as serious, because once that drink actually appears in front of you, it should be fun. And there should be humor and a sense of being in a relaxed environment. We were in this basement, and we thought, how do we make this feel like someone’s home basement but a little bit cooler?
Speaking of fun, there’s the menu — which isn’t short of jokes and games. How did you guys develop its design?
Especially at a venue that has so many drinks, it can be very labor intensive and stressful to figure out what you want. To alleviate that, we thought, why not throw a couple of jokes in there and a game? We wanted to make it more interactive. I think one of my favorite things that I see at the bar is when someone is waiting for somebody, and they just have this menu in front of them and they’ll be reading it, and then suddenly they’ll burst into laughter all by themselves. To me that is exactly what I wanted the menu to do — that’s the purpose.
You’ve cut your teeth in a variety of venues, not short of your very first bartending role at an Irish pub. What have you taken away with you from the range of experiences?
Something I always say to young bartenders who are starting out and asking for advice is to go work at a dive bar, go work at a nightclub, then start doing cocktails. Anyone can learn how to put together ingredients or follow recipes. Learning to actually interact with a room full of people and how to relate to people — that’s what makes a good bartender. Because literally, you can be in the fanciest bar, but if your bartender isn’t nice, that daiquiri that usually is the most delicious drink to you will not taste good. If your bartender maybe isn’t so good, but if their personality is amazing, they’re engaging, and they’re creating an atmosphere that is fun, then even though that daiquiri might not be the best, it’s going to taste good because the room feels good. And I think that is so important. I’m so grateful that I didn’t go straight into cocktails, and that I had those experiences of being a cocktail waitress and working at a dive bar. I honestly don’t think I’d be anywhere capable of doing what I do now if I hadn’t had those experiences.
What has been one of the best pieces of advice you’ve received over the years?
I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve had a lot of strong women mentors and a lot of great mentors in general. I really think that the best advice I’ve received was, “Don’t complicate it.” There’s a reason that a Manhattan is still delicious — it’s just the ingredients. You can’t make a Manhattan any better, no matter what you try to do to it — it’s a perfect drink. I always root my drinks in classics because they’re classics for a reason.
What do the words “night cap” mean to you?
A night cap, to me, is you’re sitting down, and the bartender just slams down a bottle in front of you or puts down a shot and a beer right in front of you — it’s those sounds that those bottles or glasses make. There’s something very comforting about those sounds, and I think a night cap should be comforting. You’ve had a hard, long day, and you just want to have that one pleasure before you call it a night.
What is something in a glass that comforts you at the end of a night?
I really just want a glass of wine. I usually just drink a very large glass of a very full-bodied wine because I like to be hugged at the end of the night.