Drinking is easy. Finding the right bar, not so easy. We’re here to help. As a public service to all of you thirsty explorers, every week we highlight the best bars in America and tell you what makes them so damn great. This week we’ve got the legendary bar that introduced modern cocktails to Brooklyn.
NAME: Clover Club
LOCATION: Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, New York
ON THE JUKEBOX: The Police, Ella Fitzgerald, Michael Arenella & His Dreamland Orchestra (plays live)
WHAT TO ORDER (NEWBIES): Clover Club: gin, dry vermouth, lemon juice, raspberry syrup and egg white
WHAT TO ORDER (REGULARS): Improved Whiskey Cocktail: rye whiskey, Maraschino liqueur, absinthe and bitters
WHY WE LOVE IT: When Julie Reiner opened Clover Club in Brooklyn in 2008, some people alleged that she was personally trying to gentrify Kings County. “There was a lot going on in Manhattan at the time,” she says. “PDT and Death & Company had just opened and were doing really well. But no big cocktail personalities had come to Brooklyn yet.”
Reiner, who founded Flatiron Lounge and Pegu Club in the city, had recently moved to northwest Brooklyn and couldn’t find a bar of that caliber near where she lived or hung out. (Maison Premiere, one of the biggest Brooklyn players today, didn’t open in Williamsburg until 2011.) Reiner toyed with the idea of opening a bar near her home and discussed it with her friend David Wondrich, a cocktail historian who also lived close by. “We found this space on Smith Street and he said you should take it, because in my opinion that’s going to be a huge area,” Reiner says. “It was still a little sleepy in some ways, still very dive bar-ish, but he gave it the stamp of approval.”
Reiner created a monster-sized menu and organized it by drink styles such as Collins and punches. “When we were opening, people knew what a julep was, but they didn’t know what a Rickey or a Smash was,” Reiner says. “We wanted to educate the public on these styles of drinks and give them a wide array of options.” On the menu, each style is explained in detail and then the drinks that fit into that category are listed underneath. For example The Machinist, a cocktail made from tequila, fino sherry, Suze and celery juice, falls under the Swizzle category. The menu has stayed true to that concept, although over the years the team has also dedicated sections to authors of classic cocktail books and modern bartenders as well.
The Clover Club’s historic space had a gothic vibe to it, which Reiner wanted to preserve. She kept the floors and walls, too, which were panelled with dark, mahogany wood or brick. “The bar itself is an antique; it’s like a giant piece of artwork,” Reiner says. It was built in 1897. “We made it our focal point and then designed the rest of the space around it.” She added crimson leather booths and white marble tables, and turned the back room into a regal, private parlor, complete with a functioning fireplace, Victorian sofas and chandeliers. “The idea was for it to be a swanky Manhattan cocktail bar but with a neighborhood, Brooklyn feel. And people were excited about that.“ The bar went on to win almost every honor available at Tales of the Cocktail’s Spirited Awards, including "Best New Cocktail Lounge in the World” (2009), “Best American Cocktail Bar” (2013) and “Best High Volume Bar” (2013). Reiner won "Best Bar Mentor” in 2013.
Clover Club has always been a weekend destination for intrepid Manhattanites, but it’s still mostly frequented by people who live in the area. “One of the biggest differences between Manhattan and Brooklyn that we noticed was that in Manhattan, Flatiron for example, if it wasn’t packed, if people weren’t spilling their martini onto the person next to them because it was so crowded, it wasn’t a good time,” Reiner says. “In Brooklyn everybody wants to sit and be civilized. They want to be comfortable and they wanted to eat.” She ended up adding more tables to the bar, more food to the menu and more dining options like brunch. “New Yorkers are very savvy and demand the best of everything,” she says. “We have to be on our toes at all times as far as service, the quality of what we’re doing and how we push the envelope.”
In addition to pushing the envelope with her drinks, Reiner is also known for being ahead of the curve with whom she employs behind the bar. “We’ve always had very welcoming working environments for women,” she says. “The bar business in general has always been very male-dominated. I personally like to have a bar that is evenly mixed with men and women. You can just sense it: You walk in and there isn’t this machismo feeling.” In 2015 Reiner opened another anti-machismo Brooklyn bar, Leyenda, with her protégé (and Playboy contributor) Ivy Mix. That same year Mix was named “American Bartender of the Year” at Tales of the Cocktail’s Spirited Awards, an achievement Mix credits to the years she spent tending bar under Reiner at Clover Club. The duo, plus Clover Club co-owner Tom Macy, are teaching cocktail classes to women and men alike this summer. Get tickets here.
Alyson Sheppard is the resident hangover specialist at Playboy.com. Find her on Twitter: @amshep