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 a bar with a choose-your-own-adventure style cocktail menu.
NAME: The Happiest Hour
LOCATION: West Village/Greenwich Village, New York City
ON THE JUKEBOX: Beach Boys, Jackie Wilson, James Brown
WHAT TO ORDER (NEWBIES): Link Ray: Suze, lime juice, celery juice, cane syrup, soda and your choice of jalapeño tequila, rum or gin
WHAT TO ORDER (REGULARS): Maid to Order: cucumber juice, lime juice, mint and your choice of gin, rum or tequila
WHY WE LOVE IT: Cocktail bars today seem to live at extremes. There’s the no-menu, bartender’s choice-only joints, the kind that requires an in-depth conversation about your life before getting a drink; and then there’s the bars with the set-in-stone, often obtuse menus that do not allow for substitutions or deviations. You feel like you’re hurting the bartender’s feelings when you ask for something different than the bizarre cocktails he or she has worked for months to perfect. And then there’s The Happiest Hour. This non-pretentious cocktail bar in New York City’s West Village (or Greenwich Village, depending on who’s asking), falls in that magical sweet spot in between.
“Anyone can walk in here and find something that they recognize—and probably already like,” says co-owner and barman Jim Kearns (of NoMad Hotel and Pegu Club fame). Kearns runs The Happiest Hour, Slowly Shirley, Tijuana Picnic and Tico’s Tequila Bar with his partner, Jon Neidich (Acme restaurant). Happiest Hour is an everyman’s bar with a retro, Miami or L.A. resort vibe. The wallpaper is covered with cartoon palm trees and seashells and an alligator head decorate a back wall.
But what truly makes it such a vibrant place to drink is the amount of authorship you get over your own cocktail. The menu features seven classic and seven signature cocktails; each signature cocktail lets you choose between four base spirits. For example under the menu’s description of the Loose Lemon (lemon syrup, soda and lemon zest), you are given the choice of gin, rum or pisco. (Vodka is always understood to be the fourth option.)
“It adds an element of interactivity for guests,” Kearns says. Not only that, but by offering four base spirit options, in essence, The Happiest Hour quadruples its menu. “All of the drinks change quite a bit depending on what the base spirit used happens to be. It’s exciting in the respect that if someone’s a regular and they happen to like a bunch of different types of booze, they could try the same drink with a few different things and actually have it taste a different every time.” Alternately if someone likes to drink only one type of booze a night, they can still try almost everything on the menu—just maybe not all in one night.
It’s a customizable way to present cocktails and a democratic way to treat customers, and frankly it’s refreshing as hell. The Happiest Hour makes us wish every bar lived by their motto: “You pick ‘em, we pour ‘em.”
Alyson Sheppard is the resident hangover specialist at Playboy.com. Find her on Twitter: @amshep