THE BLOG
06/18/2014 12:37 pm ET Updated Aug 18, 2014

On the Culture Front: A Throwback to the Future

New York is a thoroughly modern city, on the cutting edge of architecture, tech, business and culture. But in the last few months, I've noticed that some of my greatest pleasures have come from acoustic concerts, cocktails that take inspiration from centuries past, and a dinner series rooted in tradition rather than molecular gastronomy.

On the music front, Les Claypool delivered a transcendently low tech set in the 1920s time machine that is the McKittrick Hotel. Sitting on a stool armed with an acoustic bass guitar, Les played a selection of punk-fused bluegrass songs from his new album, Duo de Twang, with guitarist extraordinaire Bryan Kehoe. They opened with the rousing "Buzzards of Green Hill," oozing blues and bent notes. It didn't take long for Les to launch into jaw dropping solos, but he was more than happy to share the stage with a couple special guests. First up, Police drummer Stewart Copeland, who pounded out the neo battle cry "Battle of New Orleans" on a single drum. The two shot talked like old friends as the stage began to feel more like a living room. Then John Popper took the stage and launched into a cover of Johnny Cash's "Cocaine Blues" and Les' classic "D's Diner." Armed with just a harmonica, Popper unleashed an unreal fury of notes that caused Les to quip: "you must be really good at cunnilingus."

Band of Horses were equally compelling, playing a sit-down acoustic set at Town Hall to a sold out crowd. There was banter, a chill vibe, and killer melodies, but what really stood out is multi-instrumentalist Ryan Monroe who turned out consistently rollicking piano solos on a massive 9-foot grand that's usually reserved for classical concerts. Monroe's combination of technical precision and groove delivery brought to mind The Band's Garth Hudson. It was particularly cool to hear Monroe step in to play the main riff of "Is There a Ghost in My House" on piano when a guitar amp went out.

On the drink front, I revisited one of my favorite bars (The Dead Rabbit) as they unveiled a new menu inspired by scandal prone political giant Boss Tweed. Arranged by drink flavors like Sharp and Bitter. I was blown away by the latter's True American, an intoxicating blend of Old Forrester Signature 100-proof bourbon with cranberry and the bar's own Orinoco bitters. Bitter orange rounded out the flavor. It's hard to find a bad cocktail on their extensive menu, but if you have room, the food is also quite good. Mini lobster sliders and scotch eggs are perfect to share though you might want them all to yourself. The same goes for the bourbon pecan bread pudding. Hardly a secret anymore, the 19th century watering hole for the well-heeled remains an oasis of understated class in the bland financial district.

There's nothing understated about the Manhattan Cocktail Classic's gala that's held every May at the New York Public Library's historic main branch on 42nd street. Countless cocktails from top mixologists fill its storied, marble halls. The Clover Club's Julie Reiner made a particularly standout concoction simply called Gotham. Using Hanger 1 Vodka as a base, the drink has the heft of a classic cocktail while being quite quaffable. A plus when the offerings are so extensive.

At The Water Club (a place I was last at for a Bar Mitzvah in the late 90s), sauvignon blanc was my drink of choice as I ate sliders and gazed across the east river at the iconic Pepsi Cola sign. With plenty of seating outside, including a beach style bar, it's easy to forget you're in the city here. With relatively cheap drinks and a non-scene atmosphere, I can't think of a better summer alternative to the pricey rooftop hotel bars. There's nothing hip about The Water Club, but that's blissfully the point. When you can't make it out to Martha's Vineyard for the weekend, head here.

Despite being in Times Square, Westhouse rages against modernism with a classic art deco vibe and guests-only policy at the hotel bar that keeps the crowds down and the drinks flowingly freely. It's all included with the room rate, just as Hemmingway and Fitzgerald would have wanted it.

When you don't want to go to a restaurant for dinner, consider Ronnie Rodriquez's Chef's Dinner Series that he's hosted out of his house for the past year. Modeled after the "Puerta Cerrada" dinners in Buenos Aires where an acclaimed chef prepares a dinner for guests in their house, this private dining club combines old-country hospitality and haute cuisine. The twist is Ronnie invites chefs from around the world to make his place their home for a night. The wines are bottomless and seamlessly paired. On the night I attended, Portland chef Cathy Whims (Nostrana) took over the kitchen to prepare a mouthwatering array of courses beginning with a
"cetara style" bloody mary that was as elegant and subtle as most are aggressive and brash.

Highlights from the menu included a pillowy home-made gnocchi made with nettle, sorrel, and spinach pesto and a tender cotechino with Umbrian lentils. I first met Ronnie and his wife Kathleen Squires (a food writer and now producer of an upcoming documentary about James Beard) while traveling in Norway and have since enjoyed many meals together. When Momofuku had a two hour wait, they suggested a hole in the wall around the corner that turned out to be an exquisite feast.