NEW YORK – Some bars and restaurants boldly make their presence known.
You know the ones I’m talking about. Big, bright neon signs. In-your-face advertisements on television or billboards. Or perhaps they sell thousands of T-shirts and baseball caps featuring their name or logo or some kind of cute animal or tree or another whimsical symbol thousands of people wear thinking they’re the only ones who know about this secret, special place.
Then there’s the opposite approach. These bars and restaurants often have no signs. They may even be a little off the beaten path. And they most certainly don’t have a large retail store selling merchandise promoting their brand or logo. That’s because they don’t even have a logo.
Some of these bars bill themselves as “Speakeasies,” the name given to clandestine drinking establishments during Prohibition in the 1920s when the sale of alcohol was banned in the United States. These “hidden” bars often have secret entrances or storefronts promoting another business. You have to know where to go to find these secret bars.
But in the age of the internet, there are no secrets. There are no entrances that can’t be found.
Hidden in Plain Sight
That’s why some bars like Attaboy on Manhattan’s Lower East Side take things one step further.
There’s no sign.
There’s simply the letters “AB” taped on a gray steel door next to an old store window hidden behind a black wire mesh grate. On the window, in all capital letters, are the words “TAILORS” and “ALTERATIONS” and the initials “M&H” in between them.
When you go to open the door, you can’t get inside. That’s because the door is locked.
And even when someone answers the door, there’s no guarantee you can go straight in. That’s because this legendary cocktail bar is often full to capacity.
Now, you have two choices. Come back another night or put your name on the waiting list, which sounds formal but simply involves giving your cell phone number to the guy who answers the door. He’ll text you when there’s a free a seat at the bar. Or you can just wait outside.
A few minutes or an hour or so later—depending on how busy it is that night at Attaboy—your phone buzzes and in you go. All of this might seem like a big hassle. But once inside and seated at the long, narrow bar, it’s well worth the wait, especially once you have one of their outstanding, handcrafted cocktails
History of Excellence
Attaboy has a loyal following that dates back to the legendary bar that used to be at the same location on Eldridge Street—Milk & Honey.
First opened in 2000, Milk & Honey helped spearhead the craft cocktail craze in New York City that blossomed around the world soon after the turn of the century. Two years later, Milk & Honey opened a second bar in London’s Soho neighborhood.
Even people who never went to Milk & Honey in New York have heard of the bar. The New York Times put it in a May 2012 article about the opening of Attaboy, the bar’s Eldridge Street location “is still regarded as near holy ground by cocktail mavens.”
Like Attaboy, part of the buzz about Milk & Honey had to do with its clandestine nature. There never was a tailor at the location, despite the words painted on the bar’s window. The “M&H” (abbreviation for Milk & Honey) was intentionally painted on the window to look old. The bar also required reservations. Not surprisingly, it was an instant hit.
But the bar’s owner, Sasha Petraske, wasn’t trying to be cheeky. He took such steps since he was trying to make sure the focus was on the drinks rather than becoming the next hip hot spot.
“The service I’m offering is an idiot-free environment safe from celebrity sycophants and frat boys who read the listings in Time Out,” Petraske said in an interview with The New York Times in 2000. “Unfortunately, hiding my bar was the only way I could think of to do it these days.”
Committed to Cocktails
Milk & Honey’s refreshing approach was embodied in the bar’s Martin Luther–like “house rules.” Milk & Honey’s eight rules include such common-sense advice like “No hooting, hollering, shouting, or other loud behaviors” and “Do not linger outside the front door.” (It’s a bit sad that such behavior needs to be spelled out nowadays for everyone.)
Milk & Honey moved to a larger location at East 23rd Street in 2013. In its place, two former Milk & Honey bartenders—Michael McIlroy and Sam Ross—opened Attaboy. In October 2014, Milk & Honey was forced to close its East 23rd Street location since the landlord decided to demolish the building for redevelopment. “The landlord of our new premises invoked a redevelopment demolition clause and we have been homeless ever since,” a message states on Milk & Honey’s website. “We are doing everything we can to find a new site as soon as possible.”
In August 2015, Petraske sadly died at the age of 42. The New York Times published a long, detailed obituary for Petraske, reflecting his influence on the cocktail culture around the world. Thankfully, Petraske’s fastidious focus on creating craft cocktails in a subdued, understated setting lives on at Attaboy.
Unlike some craft cocktail bars, there’s no book-length menu at Attaboy. They also don’t take reservations and restrict the bar to parties of six or fewer people. Instead, Attaboy takes a much more personalized approach. The bartender talks to you and makes a unique cocktail just for you based on your personal flavor preferences.
The Bourbon-based drink I was served in a simple, glass tumbler with a single, large ice cube and a slice of lemon tasted like the perfect offspring of a Manhattan paired with a Bourbon Old Fashioned. Velvety smooth and refreshing, this understated gem had absolutely no bite and brought out the best in the ingredients.
The bar’s Gin- and Vodka-based drinks are also outstanding, based on samples shared by several other patrons at Attaboy. That’s another great thing about this bar—the patrons it attracts to its out-of-the-way location. Since Attaboy focuses on creating unique cocktails rather than trying to be the next A-list hot spot, craft cocktail fans from around the world make the pilgrimage to this bar open seven nights a week.
As a result, conversations between knowledgeable patrons who take their drinks seriously often flow as easily as the cocktails being made by the polite bartenders. The entire experience feels absolutely refreshing and almost revolutionary. Imagine, a bar that cares more about the drinks than the hype!
According to Attaboy’s website, “Attaboy is the everyman’s cocktail bar hidden in plain sight on an obscure bit of Eldridge Street,” which adds that Attaboy “is the younger, less self-conscious sister” of Milk & Honey.
All of this might sound hard to believe. But if you do manage to make it to Attaboy and secure a seat at its bar, you’ll likely become a regular as well based on its outstanding, unique cocktails served in a dark, low-key setting that thankfully feels like a welcome throwback to a bygone era where quality and manners matter.
134 Eldridge St, New York
Open nightly 6 p.m. to 4 a.m.