Thursday, June 7, 2012

Milk & Honey Moves On, Reservation-Free

Speculation about the uptown move of ur-neo-speakeasy Milk & Honey has been so rampant for the past year, it was a particular pleasure to land the scoop on owner Sasha Petraske's plans for his Lower East Bar—not to mention the lowdown on longtime M&H bartenders Sam Ross and Michael McIlroy's designs on the old Eldridge Street space, which they will reinvent as Attaboy. (By the way, the Attaboy cocktail found in the Savoy cocktail book will not be on the men at Attaboy because, said McIlroy, "It's a disgusting drink.")

I learned a couple other mini-scoops from Petraske when I met with him, Ross and McIlroy recently. I politely agreed not to reveal these plans, as they might through various monkey wrenches into the barman's works. But keep your eye on Petraske and company. They have some surprises in store.

So, will the new 23rd Street Milk & Honey be the same without a secret entrance and a cryptic reservation policy? A better question would be, who ever went there for those reasons? I went for the atmosphere, the bartenders and the expertly made drinks.

Here's my Times article:

Moving On, Adding a Sign Out Front
WHEN Sasha Petraske opened his bar Milk & Honey on a desolate Lower East Side block in 2000, the coming cocktail revival was barely a pie-eyed glimmer in the public’s eye. Almost instantaneously, the tiny watering hole near Delancey Street became the model for neo-speakeasy cool, attracting an enduring following. It is still regarded as near holy ground by cocktail mavens.
But it also inspired detractors, who found the saloon’s lack of a sign or a menu precious, and its notorious reservation-only policy (which has now bedeviled would-be in-crowders for a decade) haughty.
Well, that Milk & Honey will soon be gone.
When Mr. Petraske moves his tavern this summer to roomier digs at 30 East 23rd Street, the bar will drop its reservation requirement. Though it will still be largely menu-less, there will most likely be chalkboard specials and a one-page bill of fare listing the wines and beers. There will even be a small sign outside.
“I’ve been looking for a graceful way to get out of the reservation policy for quite some time,” Mr. Petraske said. “It puts enormous stress on the staff, and strain on the customer.”
The new iteration of Milk & Honey will have 66 seats, triple the size of its predecessor, and two rooms: a small bar in the front and a larger space in back. Food will play a slightly bigger role, and the look will be Art Deco. And don’t be surprised if you see the usually elusive Mr. Petraske behind the bar during the wee hours.
The old space at 134 Eldridge Street is being reopened as a bar called Attaboy by two longstanding Milk & Honey bartenders, Sam Ross and Michael McIlroy, something that pleases Mr. Petraske. “It would be heartbreaking if someone else tried to do a bar there,” he said.
Mr. Ross agreed: “The room is very important to us and a lot of people. It’s an organic transition for us.”
That said, there will be some changes. The three front booths and the pressed tin on the ceiling and the walls will be ripped out, and the bar lengthened to accommodate a dozen stools. (Milk & Honey’s current bar may be the smallest in the city; Mr. McIlroy called it a “cockpit.”)
The new Milk & Honey will open sometime in August, with Attaboy following a few weeks later.
Milk & Honey’s original trademark touches all came about by accident, said Mr. Petraske, 39. As a young bartender, he answered an ad for a commercial space on Eldridge Street. The landlord turned out to be an old friend from grade school. “The residents wouldn’t have considered renting out to a bar,” he said. “I promised them that no one would ever know there was a bar there. Hence, the hidden entrance. People thought it was guerrilla marketing.”
When lines quickly formed outside, he said, he was forced to adopt a reservation policy to honor his deal with the landlord. The lack of a menu? “I didn’t know how to run a laser printer,” he said.
Mr. Petraske is keeping busy in other ways. He and his partners in the subterranean Greenwich Village bar Little Branch will open Middle Branch on East 33rd Street between Third and Lexington Avenues in June.
Mr. Petraske, Mr. Ross and Mr. McIlroy also recently releasedBartender’s Choice, a 450-cocktail app named after the now-common listing on many bar menus in which customers put their thirst in the mixologist’s hands.
“It’s meant to emulate one of our menuless bars,” Mr. Ross said. “You can say, ‘bourbon,’ or get less specific and say, ‘whiskey.’ There’s a sensation option: sour, bitter, sweet, spicy. You put in a couple of ideas, and it comes up with the most likely drink suspects.” The app is available from iTunes. One of its developers is Kelly Chang, who also went to school with Mr. Petraske.
For Mr. Petraske, old school chums tend to appear at advantageous times.

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