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I’ll Take a Manhattan (or Any Other Drink, if It’s Free)
It sounds almost like an urban legend, a hazy rumor passed down through the ages, from Manhattan tippler to Brooklyn stoop-sitter to thirsty arriviste: you can, they whisper in a voice that sounds of whiskey and Pabst, drink free in New York City.
Those whose memories have not yet been dulled by drink may remember a similar quest I embarked upon last spring, wandering the city’s drinking dens in search of free snacks. That odyssey took me from the land of free pizza to a Sunday-morning paradise of bagels and bloody marys. Wherever my tired feet led me, I filled my belly without emptying my wallet. Still, I noticed, that leather-bound moneybag thinned a little with every stop, and I began to wonder how I might quench my thirst not just frugally but without spending a penny. <!–more–>
The first stop was MyOpenBar.com, the nearly five-year-old Web site that is the best friend of impoverished drinkers. Every day, the site posts listings of no-charge events and promotions like “Laid Off Mondays” at the Delancey (168 Delancey Street; 212-254-9920; thedelancey.com), where those with proof of unemployment get a free tequila shot at midnight. (MyOpenBar also has a Chicago version and, more important, an iPhone app.)
One Sunday night, for instance, I walked a few blocks from my home to Deity Supperclub (368 Atlantic Avenue; 212-222-3692; deitynyc.com), a chichi den, housed in an ex-synagogue, whose dim lighting, stained-glass panels and “Garden State” soundtrack felt transplanted from SoHo circa 2003. As soon as I took up a barstool, a bartender asked me if I’d come for the promotion I’d read about on MyOpenBar— free Martini & Rossi prosecco from 8 to 10 p.m. Indeed I had, and over the next hour or so I drank three flutes of the decent, but unexceptional, bubbly. Man, it was nice: as soon as the glass emptied, the bartender would fill it right back up!
Of course, such promotions are never really entirely 100 percent free. At a place like Deity, you almost can’t help but snack from the small-plates menu, and the so-so fried tomatoes and much, much better French fries ($10 each) provided a welcome cushion for the prosecco. What’s more, whether or not the drinks are free, whether or not you’re buying food, you’ve got to tip. (Attention, Europeans!) A dollar a drink is standard practice in New York; two bucks might get you noticed; five on the first drink should get you generous pours all night.
But isn’t that, I asked myself, the same as paying for a drink? If I wanted to shell out for my booze, I could just as easily scour the listings at DrinkDeal.com, which breaks down happy hours by day, time and neighborhood. And the HappyHoured iPhone app (free) does something similar, based on your location.
Meanwhile, other Internet entities have arisen to complement MyOpenBar. BoozeParty.net offers a stripped-down summary of where to drink cheaply, or free, every day, and PulseJFK.com’s Twitter feed is a constantly updated series of low-cost and no-cost events in the city, many of them drinking-related.
For truly free alcohol, an overlooked spot is the wine shop. Most offer tastings, and since they are run by either the shops or wine-business representatives, you don’t have to tip. Better yet, if you can find a cluster of wine shops, you can hop from tasting to tasting, so that all those little sips of syrah and viognier eventually add up to something like a buzz. Think of it as an urban wine trail.
One of the most wine-saturated stretches in Manhattan goes from the East Village up to Union Square. On a brilliant Saturday afternoon, I began my wine-tasting walk at Astor Wines & Spirits (299 Lafayette Street; 212-674-7500; astorwines.com), a venerable cavern of alcoholic delights that hosts tastings almost every day of the week. Actually, I used to shop here for more than a decade, stocking up on tasty plonk like $5 Jaja de Jau, but haven’t visited since I moved to Brooklyn a few years ago. It was refreshing to see the shop in its relatively new space, a big, clean, bright floor organized by region (northern Italy, say) and style. Under a bluish neon “Tastings” sign, a dozen people gathered to sample four wines — two from California (Johnson Family chardonnay and Beckmen Vineyards syrah) and two from France (a Chavy-Martin white burgundy and a Jaboulet Crozes-Hermitage).
None were really my style — I’m no fan of chardonnay’s juice— but a bit deeper into the store, I found the prize: a tasting of Scotch whiskey organized by Compass Box, a company that eschews single-malt fetishism in favor of creating unique flavors from multiple whiskeys. The chatty host talked long and entertainingly about the woods used in whiskey barrels, then presented us with sips of the light Asyla (“Couple of ice cubes. Sunny day. Washington Square Park. Paper bag,” he recommended), the butterscotchy Spice Tree and, my favorite for years, the Peat Monster, which tastes a bit like arson, in a good way.
A few blocks north of Astor, I hit another jackpot: In a room at the back of Union Square Wines (140 Fourth Avenue; 212-675-8100; unionsquarewines.com), 27 wines were available for tasting. In one corner, a Lucien Albrecht Crémant d’Alsace with lovely sharp bubbles. In another was a 2007 Côtes du Rhône called From the Tank; it came in a box and might not be a bad picnic or camping wine. Alsace and Alto Adige; New Mexico and New Zealand.. All were being sold by the bottle at a generous 20 percent discount, too.
Most enticing to me were the South African wines, which I’d somehow never tasted before. A Mulderbosch sauvignon blanc was uncommonly and intriguingly grassy, and the 2007 Boekenhoutskloof cabernet sauvignon, leathery and elegant, was the best wine I’d drink that day. (At $54.99 a bottle, it should have been!) Even better, the wine importers running the tastings were eager to talk about their business: A man from Cape Classics, which imports the Mulderbosch, explained that though wine had been produced in South Africa for 350 years, it still wasn’t a big domestic product — beer and brandy were what South Africans drink, while Mulderbosch, for example, exports primarily to Sweden. Who knew?
The final wine-shop stop that day was Bottlerocket Wine & Spirit (5 West 19th Street; 212-929-2323; bottlerocketwine.com), just north and west of Union Square. While Astor and Union Square take the traditional approach to organizing their wares (by region, primarily), Bottlerocket has other priorities. One counter is labeled “Critics” and has highly rated wine; another is labeled “Meat” (goes with meat, I presume); another is “Value” (my kind of wine). Two wines were up for tasting, an amazing pinot noir from Oregon’s Boedecker Cellars and a Burgundy from Jean-Marc Brocard that was just the kind of white I love: dry and flinty, in the Sancerre mode. And, since a bottle was just $15, I took one home, signing up for Bottlerocket’s mailing list to score an extra 10 percent discount.
That may have been the end of my wine stores that day, but there was still drinking to do. It was 6-ish on a Saturday, which meant that somewhere in Chelsea, an art gallery was having an opening. And where there are art galleries, there are free drinks — usually bad white wine in plastic cups, but as a frugal sage once said, you get what you don’t pay for.
Earlier, I’d looked up some openings on NYArtBeat.com, one of many, many Web sites that list such events (another good site is Artcards.cc), and found that something called “Debris” was going on at PPOW (511 West 25th Street, room 301; 212-647-1044; ppowgallery.com). But I could just as easily have walked along 24th or 25th Street, eyes alert to the flash of light on a plastic cup, ears alert to a party, and just wandered in anywhere I saw an opening.
As it happened, “Debris” was a good choice, but not for the weak vodka drinks being poured for visitors. (I got a vodka-cranberry and tipped the gallerista-turned-bartender $1.) No, I was impressed by the art itself. In one room, Sarah Frost had covered entire walls with keys from computer keyboards, creating striking patterns of color and texture. And in another, Portia Munson had covered a table with, well, the color pink: pink plastic combs, pink plastic elephants, pink plastic dolls, the Pink Panther. If it could be made in pink plastic, it was probably there, and the totality of it all was overwhelming. I felt like I needed a drink.
What was most surprising, though, was how this endeavor had turned the usual gallery-opening experience on its head. Most of the time, people go to art galleries only superficially for the art — really, they want free drinks and to see their friends. But by making free drinks the primary purpose of my visit, I had nothing to hide, and could actually enjoy the show for what it was.–