Every now and then, when we write about a place that's managed to stay on the edge of the media spotlight, we get a few angry emails.
Well, we get the appreciative ones first—"This place is fantastic! So glad to see it recognized!"—but there are always a few grumbles. "Great, now I'll never get in." "This place was better undiscovered." "Why would you ruin the secret?"
It's true, we're all tempted to guard our own favorite places; and I have to confess, I've been holding back on my own. But Ward III, on Reade Street in Tribeca, is a bar without equal in New York City. One that, quite honestly, deserves even more praise than it's attracted.
That's not to say that this fantastic bar is somehow undiscovered; their loyal following and writeups in New York and Details magazines can testify to that. But it still doesn't have the instant name recognition of a Death + Company, an Employees Only, an Apothéke—whose cocktails it at least equals and, in this writer's opinion, surpasses. In my selfish moments, I'm grateful that the masses have yet to descend. I generally find the pitch at Ward III just as it should be: a comfortable, lively hum on weekday nights; a more spirited crowd on Fridays and Saturdays; never a line to get in, never too crowded to shimmy your way to the bar.
But that doesn't mean I should keep the secret to myself.
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Ward III has any number of things going for it: the gorgeous long bar, backed by liquor shelves fashioned from the sewing machine tables of antique Singers; a reliably awesome soundtrack; bacon-covered dates that have a way of vanishing from whatever plate they're piled on. (Especially after a cocktail or two.) But really, you're there for the barkeeps—and whatever they're shaking. Kenneth McCoy, Michael Neff, and Abdul Tabini, veteran Tribeca bartenders all, opened Ward III together after collective decades behind the bar; and though they run the place, they're still the ones stirring your cocktails every night of the week. (That's not a clear enough sign of devotion? You'll spot them by the "III" tattoos on their arms.)
Their drink menu is nearly as exciting to read as to sample. Even when cocktails sound predictable—gin, cucumber, and citrus, say—Ward III's versions aren't quite what one would expect. Though one might imagine the Last Dance (gin, lemon, orange flower water, Veuve Clicquot, cucumber) to be sweet and fruity, a summer spritzer, it's anything but; the natural cucumber notes of the Hendrick's Gin emerge most clearly, with refreshing crispness of the Veuve Clicquot. Bone-dry.
The Kentucky Devil, another favorite, is based around Old Weller bourbon and smooth, full-bodied rum Appleton Estate V/X; with muddled rosemary and apple, the result unites the herbal notes of Bénédictine and the gentle, warming sugar-and-vanilla play of the spirits.
Fans of more fruit-forward cocktails will find something to love on their opening cocktail list; my own favorites from this era are the Abe Stark (gin, grapefruit, raspberry, cardamom) and the Tortuga (Montecristo rum with ginger, citrus, and cinnamon).
And the Food?
While not as showstopping as the cocktail list—this is a bar, after all—Ward III's menu of nibbles is good deal better I'd expected: a smoky quesadilla stuffed with caramelized onions; immensely satisfying mac and cheese with an appealingly crunchy top; a grilled fig and goat cheese panino. And the hardly original, but perfectly done bacon dates: fatty, crunchy, salty, sweet, delicious.
As enticing as the listed libations may be, I'd recommend you opt for a bespoke cocktail, where Ward III really excels. Give a few specifications—texture (strong, smooth, or creamy?), flavor (sour, savory, or hot?), spirit, fruit, spice—and see what the bartenders shake you. And they're up for anything. Entry-level cocktails I've seen them nail: "refreshing gin," "crisp mint tequila," "rosemary and vodka." A bit more difficult? From the unlikely ("Creamy, winter, but not at all heavy?") to the strangely specific ("Effervescent bourbon and raspberry").
And despite the bartenders' standards and skill, they manage to make Ward III a comfortable place for any cocktail fan, from the Scotch connoisseur to the sorority Midori guzzler. No request is too lowbrow. This place has less attitude than your corner dive bar. I can't say I've ever seen them mix up a Long Island, but I'm not sure they wouldn't, if asked nicely.
I once went with a friend who requested "something that doesn't taste like alcohol, maybe with orange juice, and very sweet"—and was delivered just what she asked for, a glorified screwdriver, fresh orange and grapefruit juices with vodka, a few drops of housemade bitters and a champagne float. She was delighted. And if the bartenders secretly rolled their eyes at her order, no one was the wiser.
It's tempting to play "Stump the Bartender"—creamy cayenne brandy, anyone?—but it's more fun to watch the improbable turn into the delicious.
A gorgeous space, a charming staff, Monday whiskey tastings, those bacon-wrapped dates, and a different favorite drink every time you stop by—clearly, I can't say enough about Ward III. It's New York pricey, sure; but it's the only bar I know that, without question, justifies those New York prices. Whatever you're drinking.