R.I.P. The Campbell Apartment

The impending closure of the Campbell Apartment, in New York’s Grand Central Terminal, has me feeling feelings and thinking thoughts.

Jen and I had our first drink at the Campbell … well, I don’t recall for sure. Maybe we first went there when she still lived in Boston, or maybe after she moved to Long Island City. But it was part of our “dating life,” a place I took her to impress her with my sophisticated urbanity and wit.

The Campbell is where I started to appreciate the art of the cocktail. My friend Adam from the Boston Shaker teaches a lot of cocktail classes, and he sees people coming to cocktails from one of three paths: culinary, historical, or scientific. There are people who see the cocktail as the start of a great meal; there are those who are drawn to the Jerry Thomas aspects of it; and there are those who are fascinated by the chemistry of mixing drinks.

Though now, after 10+ years of writing about cocktails I’ve learned to appreciate all three elements, Jen and I first approached the cocktail from the culinary perspective, and just a touch from the historical, and the Campbell was a wonderful venue for both approaches.

The Campbell Apartment was also a great place to take a date, and the memories we have of our early relationship there are priceless to us. The dress code made you feel grown up and most people took it seriously enough to make you up your game a little. In fact, one thing that annoys me about the Post article I linked to is how it portrays the dress code:

“Right now, the image that people have of it very often is it’s a place to go before special occasions,” Gerber explains.

“So if you’re going to a black-tie event at the Hyatt in Grand Central, you go in [to the Campbell Apartment] for a drink. That’s OK, you can be in a tuxedo,” Gerber says.


The dress code at the Campbell was business casual. Here’s what the website says:

Proper Attire Required

Absolutely no Athletic Shoes, T‑shirts, Sweatshirts, Baseball Caps, Shorts or Torn Jeans

I see nothing there about a fucking tuxedo. And think about where the Campbell is located — in Grand Central in Midtown Manhattan, a place of law firms and doctors’ offices. The MetLife building is due north. Few lawyers, doctors, or insurance officers wear sweats and torn jeans to work.

So you’d go after work in your business-casual attire and fit right in. Sure, if you wanted to go home first and change into something swankier before going out on the town, that would work too, but to paint that as a requirement is crap.

Anyway. Moving on.

As I said, the Campbell is where I really started to appreciate the art of the cocktail, but after a while, moving on is exactly what we did. After all, we started seeing each other in 2003. Jen moved shortly after that to Long Island City, a short ride on the 7 train from Grand Central. So when we started seeing each other, the Campbell was a perfect place to meet after work. Back then, you could smoke on the balcony, so I’d get off the D train at 42nd, get a cigar at Nat Sherman, and then poke around Posman’s (also sadly evicted from Grand Central) before meeting Jen in the lobby outside the Campbell.

We’d get a couple of drinks and I’d have a smoke, and then we’d head off to dinner or go back to the overpriced market stalls at GCT and grab stuff to make a simple dinner at one of our apartments.

But back to the moving on. We were regulars there, probably around 2003-2004. Anyone who knows the cocktail scene in NYC knows what else was happening at that time. Milk & Honey opened in 2000, though Jen and I never went there together. Flatiron Lounge opened in 2003; Employees Only in 2004; and Pegu Club in 2005. I don’t know when we first started going to Flatiron, but I remember being there one night when the bartender told me that Pegu was about to open, so we were there almost at the start.

And then we moved to Bushwick, when the Williamsburg scene was getting hot. We ate at Diner and Marlow & Sons quite often, and it was so easy to start (and end) those nights with drinks at nearby Dressler, at a time when Jim Ryan and Mark Buettler were regularly behind the bar. We made regular pilgrimages to Red Hook to stock our home bar at LeNell’s. I met Gary Regan there, and talked about old Gaz with Jim, right after Jim went north for Cocktails in the Country.

Everything about who I am now — my writing, my wife, my kids — all of it has its roots in that time of our lives. We haven’t been back to the Campbell in too damn many years, and we certainly won’t be able to get back before it closes. And after a few years of drinking at Pegu and Death & Co and Dressler, the Campbell’s drinks just weren’t what we wanted anymore anyway — too large, too sweet. But that doesn’t matter.

I owe a lot to the Campbell, and if it weren’t 8:30am, I’d raise a glass, toast its memory, and lament its demise. New York real estate is a face-hugging alien of a bitch, and I regret what it’s doing to the city I love.

In My Experience …

Writing over at ShakeStir, Paul Clarke has launched a new column called In My Experience. ShakeStir is a relatively new platform for bartenders, meant to provide information and advice about managing their professional interests. Clarke’s column provides a good look at what ShakeStir is all about. He interviews veteran bartenders about work/home balance, managing money, drinking, staying healthy, and generally keeping your sanity while working long shifts in the service industry.

His first two interviews feature a couple of guys who know a thing or two about working behind the stick: Dale DeGroff and Gaz Regan. The questions are smart and the answers incisive and wise. I’m looking forward to future installments.

Incidentally, I have a profile there, if that really matters to anyone.

DC Stealth

Last week, I made a quick and mostly unpublicized visit to Washington, D.C. The reason for the visit? Simple. I had never been there before. That’s right, I had seen other national capitols, but not my own. We had a little money to spare, and Jen and I talked about sending me down for a couple of days. I started watching airfares, and one day about four weeks ago, I saw one that made my head spin.

JetBlue, as it turns out, has just inaugurated service between Boston’s Logan Airport and DC’s Reagan National. The carrier has been flying between Logan and Dulles for some time now, but only on 11/1 did JB start serving National–seven flights a day, seven days a week. And as JetBlue does, they advertised a special fare: $7 each way.

That’s not a typo. Seven dollars each way. Seventy dimes, seven hundred pennies, etc. So for $14 plus 21 bucks for taxes and fees, I had a round-trip to DC in my hands. (To put this into perspective, my train fare from Providence to Boston cost $7.75 each way. That’s right, I paid more to take the train to South Station than I did to fly to DC.) I kept the trip on the cheap by staying in the Hosteling International hostel on 11th near K St. Yeah, bunk beds, but also? $40 a night, and in a convenient location. For two nights, I won’t complain about bunk beds.

The trip was mostly touristy and mostly in central DC. I saw this …

… and I saw that …

… and this …

The next day, I went here …

Library of Congress

… and I went here …

Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

But these days, I can’t travel anywhere without sampling the local imbiberterias. I had alerted my friends Sean-Mike and Marshall, of DC’s superfamous Scofflaw’s Den, to my impending travels, and they agreed to meet Tuesday evening for dinner and drinks.

We started at PS 7’s, where I eventually lost track of my drinking. I met their bar star, Gina Chersevani, who is not only a great bartender but a real sweetheart as well. I started with the oddly named Gnome’s Water–gin, cucumber water, lemon juice, and lavender. Very refreshing and tasty. Then, the Boiler Room–Bourbon, lemon juice, and Allagash White Ale. Delicious. There’s something to these beer cocktails, I think. After that, details fade into the mist, in part because the light got dim and my camera was no longer of much use. I know I tried their delicious cider-bourbon punch. There was a Sazerac done up special for me. And we ended on shots of smoky, smoky mezcal.

Gnome's Water

Boiler Room

We then repaired to the Passenger, and this is even more dim. I couldn’t shoot my drinks at all there, and I no longer had the hand-eye coordination to take notes, so instead, let me play up the vibe of the place. Tuesday evening, not most bars’ busiest night, and thus was also true of the Passenger. Nice sized crowd, though, and very mellow. We sat at the bar, me near a pillar covered in graffiti–much of which from visiting bartenders. I remember seeing Voisey and Meehan’s names there, and I think some wag had scrawled Gary Regan’s name next to a phone number that may or may not actually be his. The bartenders were chatty and attentive, letting me look at bottles I had never seen (High West whiskeys, for example, which aren’t distributed in Rhody or Mass.) and suggesting cocktails we might enjoy. Passenger’s co-owner Tom Brown was absent that evening, but his brother (and fellow co-owner) Derek was on hand, and he offered us a tour of the Columbia Room, which is closed on Tuesdays.

Jake Parrott arrived while we were at the Passenger, and after another round or two, we wound up at ChurchKey, a wonderful beer bar at 14th and Rhode Island. I started with a cask ale called Oliver’s The Darkness. I remember moving on from there to a sour beer, but alas, the name of said sour is lost to the fog of inebriation.

Year Five

Pepe et femmeWith another February sneaking slowly out the door, we’ve reached another milestone at A Dash of Bitters–our fourth anniversary–and with it comes another look back and forward.

Looking Back

When we last celebrated an anniversary, I was feeling a little glum. Unemployment had cruelly struck and I was lamenting my limited prospects for the future. Well, year four turned out rather better than I was expecting it to. No, I didn’t make it to Tales of the Cocktail, but that wound up really the only bleak part of my cocktail calendar. I made three trips to NYC for cocktail events and racked up a lot of Amtrak miles in the process. In April, I participated in the Beefeater 24 Thursday Drink Night at Quarter Bar in Brooklyn (special guests Dan Warner and David Wondrich); in November, I made it down for the Live portion of the Bar Smarts Advanced certification; and in December, I participated in Junior Merino’s Liquid Lab.

I was a judge for Rhode Island’s statewide IronTender competition, which introduced me to some … well, interesting drinks but more importantly to some great new friends. Ted Haigh included me along with some great vintage friends in the latest edition of his Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails. Then came the Foodbuzz nomination, which still surprises me.

I became a published cocktail/spirits writer during this last year, with a regular column in Edible Rhody magazine. (Locals should look for the Spring issue to–yes, I’m going there–bloom around March 20.) Speaking of print media, this past year also saw Jen’s mug gracing the New York Times (which has fuck-all to do with me, but hey, I’m still proud of and stunned by that.)

Jen’s burst of fame came as a direct result of her participation in the Food52 website and cookbook project. And just this week, I was startled to see a familiar face in Food52’s Cook Spotlight feature. (Which reminds me, I should post more cocktail recipes to that site.)

Sooooo, yeah, it wound up being a very good year.

Looking Forward

But it’s Year Five that excites me even more: I’ll be moderating a panel at Tales of the Cocktail and editing the official Tales blog this year. (Which reminds me, I should arrange my flight and hotel soon.) And of course, there’s this baby:

cook and brown logo

And some of you may be wanting another update. We’ve been very busy, I can tell you that much.

We’re planning to open in mid-March; the date right now depends a lot on the contractor because we’re mostly set. Our DIY demolition work is finished and we’re ready for the contractor’s team to come in and rebuild the bar and dining room. Nemo and Jenny have hired pretty much the entire staff–cooks, servers, and dishwasher–and our first staff meeting is tomorrow afternoon. We have a preliminary menu and a full cocktail menu for both brunch and dinner. (The food is preliminary because Nemo’s cooking is ultra-seasonal. If he’s planning a braised lamb shank and it’s suddenly 60º out, there’s no sense in having announced braised lamb three weeks in advance.)

On the beverage front, I’m putting together a list of spirits and barware that we’ll need to order. Adam Mir, our sous chef is in charge of the beer list. We’re talking with beer distributors and hope to have a fun announcement to make, soon, regarding our beer program. Nemo’s fronting the wine program; we’ve been tasting wines all week and have another tasting tomorrow, so we should have our list of Old World wines ready next week. We’ve tasted coffees from New Harvest Coffee Roasters in Pawtucket. And finally, I’ve been in touch with a local soda bottler, Yacht Club Beverage, and we hope to speak to them soon about supplying our soft drinks.

DISCLAIMER: I am no longer a part of Cook and Brown.

Big, major announcement! ZOMGreally!

2010 is shaping up to be a busy year. Among the several things I have to announce is a career change. See, I’m currently employed by unemployment, having lost nearly all of my freelance gigs in 2009. In the next few weeks, though, that’s gonna change, assuming everything proceeds as planned.

Here’s the announcement: I recently agreed to become the bar manager of a new restaurant. My hobby is about to become my profession.

The restaurant is called Cook & Brown Public House (there’s a website, but it’s pretty skeletal right now), and it’s opening on Hope Street in Providence in late February. The owners are a young couple, Nemo and Jenny Bolin. Nemo’s worked at Craigie St. Bistro, No. 9 Park, and similar places in the Bay Area. His sous chef just finished a stage at Gramercy Tavern. Nemo envisions a menu that changes daily, sourced from local, seasonal ingredients. They’ll be breaking down primals and whole animals, and Nemo’s planning to work with Farm Fresh RI‘s farm-to-chef program, which supplies local produce to restaurants.

For the bar, he envisions a small cocktail menu, also with a seasonal focus, using house-made tinctures, syrups, bitters, and sodas. As bar manager, I’ll stock the bar, create cocktails, hire a backup bartender, talk to suppliers, and take care of the more mundane aspects of running a bar.

(As an aside, I’ve been wanting to tell Camper English how closely I’ve followed the discussion on his post, “Why Can’t I Get a McDonald’s Hamburger at Chez Panisse?“, but until recently, I couldn’t say much about the new gig. I’ve been thinking a lot about how to serve people who ask for cosmopolitans, rum-and-Cokes, Bud Lights, and so on.)

You may be thinking, I don’t recall Dietsch mentioning ever working in a bar. You’re right, I haven’t. I haven’t actually worked in food service in any capacity since college, too many years ago. So, why me? How’d I catapult to the top? Nemo subscribes to Danny Meyer’s theory of hospitality–that most of the battle is about hiring people who have it, and then training them on technique, so his idea (and time will prove him right or wrong) is that he’d rather bring in someone passionate about cocktails and then let that person grow into the job of bar management.

I’m lucky in a way. The Cook & Brown space will be fairly small, seating about 50-60 people. We’re hoping that a good night, when we first open, will see about 50 plates of food go out. Even if all 50 guests order cocktails, which isn’t likely, I’d be mixing about 50 drinks a night. Some of you who tend bar do that in half an hour or less. Realistically, I’ll probably only mix half that number a night, when we’re starting. So I don’t expect to get weeded.

I know this market, and I’ve dined in other local restaurants that cater to it. You don’t often see drunken people misbehaving at them. I’m sure it happens, but this won’t be some dive or college bar. So I shouldn’t have to break up fights or cut people off on a regular basis.

I know this job will be about more than mixing drinks and offering bon mots in a cool setting; I don’t want anyone to think I’m naive. I’ll have chapped hands daily from all the running water, and they’ll probably get cut up even more often than I already expect. The hours will be long and seem longer as my 41-year-old back and feet adapt to a torso that’s upright all day.

The hardest part is that I’ll be away from my wife all day. When the restaurant opens, I’m committed to being there every day it serves customers, for the first few weeks, until I know the bar, the clientele, and the food. At that point, I’ll bring someone in to cover a shift or two a week so I can have a break.

But for Jen and me, our lives will change. She’ll still leave the house before 7 every morning to get to Boston, and she’ll still come home just before 7 every night, but the difference is, I won’t be here. This will affect her blog, and she’ll weigh in on that herself soon, but more importantly it’ll affect our marriage. Luckily, she has a standing invitation from the proprietors to come up to the restaurant and have a meal and a couple of drinks. They want her to be part of the family, and they want the restaurant to be part of the community. Jen’s such a strong proponent of the local food scene that just having her on hand could be good for business.

And this change will affect this blog as well. One thing I’m seriously hoping to do is document the process of opening a new place, from the p-o-v of a newbie. Taking this on is a challenge, but since I am so passionate about it, I’m hoping it’ll be a fun one. At times, it seems pretty intimidating, but there’s one thing that stays in the back of my head. I’m unemployed now, and my benefits are close to running out. It’s been a hard year as I’ve applied and applied for jobs with no result. I have very, very little to lose here, and potentially a very lot to gain.

Here’s to the start of an exciting ride, and I hope you all have a great 2010.