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This Bartender Wants to Revive the Golden Age of New York Hotel Bars

Leo Robitschek is fascinated by Lower Manhattan's storied history in the development of modern cocktails, which has served as a core influence in the development of his beverage program at The Elephant Bar at the NoMad Hotel.

by Alex Swerdloff
Nov 13 2015, 7:00pm

Photos by the author.

"I've always had this love of classic New York dining as well as classic New York cocktail history, the epicenter of which was the hotel scene," explains Leo Robitschek. It's drizzling lightly and thick, ashen clouds loom overhead as the Venezuelan-born, Miami-raised beverage director and I walk down a clamorous Broadway in Lower Manhattan. Having just left the mahogany embrace of The Elephant Bar at The NoMad Hotel—which Robitschek helms—we venture downtown, a solitary umbrella in hand, toward that nearby shrine to heavenly dining, Eleven Madison Park.

EMP is, of course, the world-renowned restaurant run by chef Daniel Humm and restaurateur Will Guidara—and it's where Robitschek started and, eventually, hit his stride as a beverage director. Humm and Guidara are also the team behind the food at The NoMad Hotel. These three have taken New York dining and drinking to unprecedented heights, with EMP becoming the sole New York restaurant in the top five of the World's Best Restaurants List and NoMad garnering three stars from The New York Times.

So why in the hell would one of New York City's best bartenders be willing to follow me on a not-so-very-well planned excursion through the heart of the former "cocktail circuit" of New York? I'm talking about an area stretching along Broadway between 23rd Street and 34th Street that was world-famous for its bars before Prohibition. It saw the invention of the Old Fashioned, the Irish Whiskey Punch, and the Gin Rickey. It was part of The Tenderloin, a.k.a. Satan's Circus.

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The Satan's Circus cocktail.

It turns out that Robitschek is fascinated by the area and its distinguished and storied history in the development of modern cocktails. (Plus it's the very same walk Guidara took Robitschek on when they first started planning the bars at NoMad.) He has spent years studying the neighborhood—where both EMP and The NoMad are located—and has used it as a core influence in writing the staggeringly impressive NoMad Cocktail Book. His new primer to everything cocktails is a book-within-a book; it was published last month inside The NoMad Cookbook.

As we embarked on our walk, I had the opportunity to ask Robitschek what it is about New York and its history that moves him so.

MUNCHIES: So how did you fall in love with classic New York cocktail culture if you didn't grow up in or near New York?
Leo Robitschek: I never really liked history until college, but I fell in love with New York when I was about seven. My family used to come here a few times a year and I was always enamored by the city and the huge buildings and sheer amount of people. The city made me feel like there was nothing bigger, and now it feels so small. There wasn't a lot out there written about mixology back then, and the first book I got was The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks. When you did research, you always heard about Jerry Thomas and Manhattan. I also read all about the Algonquin, the Rainbow Room, The Oak Room, The Plaza, Trader Vic's, and Patrick Gavin Duffy.

What was it like when you finally went to some of those places years later?
When I went to those hotels, I was like, "Wow. They don't even use fresh juice." The bartenders are super old-school, but most didn't give a shit. They didn't carry all that history with them. When I would go to these old hotels during the day, most of the time a food runner or a busboy would jump behind the bar.

How did you start bartending?
I started at Eleven Madison Park about ten years ago. I had worked in hospitality before, but they were not great places to work at and I was thinking of going to medical school. I had heard about this guy, Danny Meyer, who was treating people with kindness and respect—and although that doesn't sound insane now, it wasn't really being practiced that much back then. I had worked at tons of places where the GMs came in super coked-up. I worked in a place where the owner slapped a bartender across the face for giving him a bill. There was another place where the owner played "dining room roulette," where he would line up the employees, quiz them, and fire them randomly. Thankfully, the pendulum has switched to the other side, but I don't take for granted how Danny operated back then.

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Leo Robitschek.

What was it like when you started working at Eleven Madison Park?
It was great because I had a lot of flexibility and I could experiment with all those old classics I had read about. When I started running the bar, Will and Daniel told me they wanted this to be one of the best bars in the world and I just sort of chuckled—because at that time, there was Pegu Club and Milk & Honey [both known as innovators in using fresh ingredients and novel combinations in their cocktails].

You're known for working closely with the kitchen, using fresh ingredients, and coming up with surprising combinations in your drinks. How did you end up learning your craft? Did you have a mentor in any sense?
You know, it's funny, because I never had a mentor. In the book, I credit my insecurity with not having a mentor as being the reason behind my success in this industry. If I had a well-known mentor, I would have just stuck to that style and never really tried to go outside the box, because you want to try and stay true to who you work for. Not having a mentor allowed me to develop my own voice. And then, about four years ago, I was talking to Chef [Daniel Humm] about our creative process and he really shocked me when he told me that my work actually inspired him. That's when we really started collaborating. I sit in on all of their recipe tests each week and riff off that; and then I will present things to him that could, in turn, inspire dishes you see in the restaurant.

As we're walking, it's hard to even imagine the ghosts of those old great hotels. Was it a little bit of a letdown once you started working here and realized the area was no longer like what you had read about?
A little bit. In general, hotels in New York City aren't really synonymous with great dining anymore. There weren't any really famous bars at hotels like there used to be in the area. Hotels lease out their bar spaces now and they work completely separate from each other. This beautiful, all-inclusive experience for the diners, the hotel patrons, and the community doesn't exist anymore that much. I want our space [at The NoMad Hotel] to be somewhere where the entire city will mingle together and have fun. Before I started working in the area, I never used to come around here and that's sad. But that's changed.

Thanks for speaking with me, Leo.