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 an Italian cocktail bar run by Australians and located in New York City. Did you follow all of that?
LOCATION: Greenwich Village, New York
ON THE JUKEBOX: Luciano Pavarotti, Dolly Parton, Bob Marley
WHY WE LOVE IT: In Europe all-day drinking is just part of the lifestyle. Not getting drunk, but patiently sipping glass after glass of low-alcohol beverages such as Campari and Aperol in a ritual. Dante, an Italian cocktail bar in Greenwich Village, is one of the first championing this custom to Americans.
“This kind of drinking makes you feel great!” owner Naren Young says. “You feel refreshed, you feel invigorated. And you can sit around and have more drinks, hang out longer. I want to become the place in all of America, maybe in all of the world, that is the most maniacal about promoting this beautiful sensibility.”
That’s a big task for Young and his two business partners, all three Australian, who only opened the bar last year. But they’re working with some solid bones: The previous occupant of their space, Caffe Dante, has been an institution since 1915. Back then the café mostly just sold espresso and pastries to locals, most of whom were Italian immigrants. In the 1950s the café transitioned into a modest meeting place for artists such as Bob Dylan and Patti Smith. Last year Young and his partners bought the space and turned it into Dante, an Italian-inspired bar, coffee shop and restaurant.
“Taking over something like that came with a lot of pressure,” Young says. “Some of the locals were very apprehensive at first. They thought it was a couple of Australian hipsters coming in to ruin the place. But I think most of them have been pleasantly surprised with what happened.”
They didn’t change the façade of the bar—legally they couldn’t due to the café’s status as a New York City landmark—but freshened up the interior to make it look more bright and what Young calls “European.” They added a pressed tin ceiling and leather banquettes, brought in lots of plants, built two bars along the walls and hung framed, old photographs of the café on the walls. They added wicker seats to the outside patio and faced them all outwards toward the sidewalk as they do in Parisian cafes.
They also introduced a food and cocktail program that didn’t exist before. The food is modern, healthy Italian such as pastas and fresh salads. And the drinks menu focuses on refreshing, low-ABV ingredients and types of drinks such as vermouth, sherry and Negronis—the king of all aperitifs. Dante even has its own Negroni happy hour (every day between the hours of 4 p.m. and 7 p.m.), where you can get 12 versions of the drink, including one on tap, for $9 each.
Young wants to own certain drinks, to serve the very best interpretation of them in the world. To accomplish this, he elevates drinks with nontraditional garnishes or glassware, or tweaks a certain ingredient. His gin and tonic, for example, includes a tonic cordial and a mist of jasmine. Or take his grown-up interpretation of a white wine spritzer, which he has named Vermouth Service: a goblet of vermouth served with frozen grapes, a splash of Perrier and a lemon twist.
His methods appear to be catching on. One of Dante’s most popular drinks is the Garibaldi, a combination of Campari and orange juice. In the written description of the drink on the menu, Young describes the orange juice as “fluffy” because it takes on an aerated texture after the high-speed juicing process. “I saw the Garibaldi pop up on a menu in London last week—they even called the orange juice ‘fluffy,’” he says.
Dante is open without breaks from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. on many nights, making it a reliable place to stop for a drink or a bite to eat any time of day. “People can treat Dante however they want to treat it, and that’s really resonated with them,” Young says. “We just have so many elements: You can come in and have a coffee and cake, come in and have a glass of wine or come in and have a full meal. Or come in late at night and the bar will still be rocking.”
The point, Young says, is to continue being a beacon for the community, as it was when Caffe Dante opened back in the early 1900s. “When we took over we wanted to keep that integrity and the feel of it,” he says. “We didn’t—we don’t—want it to be a hip place. I know we make great drinks and that’s fine, but we’re really aiming for people to be able to come in here and feel like it’s a home away from home.”
Alyson Sheppard is the resident hangover specialist at Playboy.com. Find her on Twitter: @amshep