Eleven Madison Park is best known nowadays for its recent ascent into the elite group of restaurants that have gotten four-star reviews - the highest possible rating - from the New York Times. On looks alone, the place deserves the accolades. The main dining room, a grand hall with impossibly high ceilings, marble walls and a gorgeous view onto Madison Square Park, would be worth going to even if the food wasn't as good as it is.
But if, instead of heading for the dining room, you make a right turn upon entering and head to the bar, you'll stumble upon one of New York's best-kept secrets. The bar at Eleven Madison Park not only does the restaurant justice, but it's also my favorite place in the city to have a drink, whether I'm looking for a cutting-edge cocktail or simply a gin-and-tonic and a friendly chat with the folks behind the stick.
The fun starts as soon as you belly up to the bar. Take notice of all the bottles of bitters (I nearly had a heart attack the first time I saw the newly revived 19th century brand Boker's bitters amongst them) and replica vintage bar manuals, and you'll know right away that this is a cocktail geek's paradise. But while 11 Mad Park may appeal to the geeky, the bartenders won't roll their eyes if you order a vodka martini, as a drinking companion of mine recently did.
Vodka martinis, however, aren't the way to go at a bar this accomplished and well-stocked. The menu lists classics from Jerry Thomas and the Savoy Cocktail Book, as well as intriguing (and tasty) creations like the Eclipse, employing mezcal, Aperol, Cherry Heering and lemon, and the Air & Rye, an unusually light and refreshing rye whiskey concoction featuring Old Overholt rye, Strega liqueur, triple sec, lemon and Angostura bitters. There's also a small but fantastic collection of "soft" non-alcoholic cocktails that are so complex and refined, you won't miss the booze.
The best way to go is "Bartender's Choice," a $15 roll of the dice which, in my experience, hasn't come up snake eyes yet. Be as particular or as vague as you like with specific ingredients and instructions, or leave it all up to the bartender. Either way, you're guaranteed to wind up with something interesting and delicious. On a recent visit, I was served a "julep variation," featuring rum, tequila, molé bitters and cold-brewed coffee instead of bourbon, that was one of the best cocktails I've ever had.
The staff, helmed by head bartender Leo Robitschek, knows their stuff, but they don't lord it over their customers. They're friendly and professional to the core - I only go there once a month or so, but the last time I was there, the bartender remembered a drink I'd had two visits previously. The bar area can get crowded, but not uncomfortably so. Miraculously, it's quiet enough so you can have a conversation without having to yell. The crowd, ranging from tourists to buttoned-up businesspeople to Flatiron fashionistas, is always friendly, and odds are you'll wind up chatting with people you didn't know when you walked in the door.
In the unlikely event you're not feeling like a cocktail, the extensive list of wines available by the glass and the food selection, ranging from mini-burgers and small pasta dishes (including the best gnocchi I've ever eaten) to full-on main courses, will tempt you anyway. But for the mixology-minded, Eleven Madison Park should join the pantheon of Manhattan's must-visit bars alongside higher-profile spots like the Pegu Club and Little Branch. Just save a stool for me, please.
(This review was originally posted on The Liquid Muse, minus a few additions and edits)