The dead of summer brings a certain kind of zombie to NYC - the perpetually shorts clad denizens of Middle America descending on Times Square in search of "New York" pizza, dirty water dogs and stale pretzels after a showing of The Lion King. This is a must-to-avoid creature, though since they travel in packs, stumbling about, blinded by the big city lights, it is increasingly difficult to avoid them.
Suitably culture shocked, we found ourselves in the center of the Times Square not once but twice in recent weeks, and needing drinks, not mobs, we descended on two neighborhood newbies - Lantern's Keep and The Rum House - in the hopes cocktail culture would be alive and well in tourist hell.
Lantern's Keep (49 W. 44th Street) is the more downtown of the two, a stylish 25 seat room hidden in the back of the Iroquois Hotel where serious imbibers are shielded from the backpack clad hotel residents by a pair of discreetly pulled back curtains. The cocktail program is under the purview of Meaghan Dorman, whose creations at the Raines Law Room once led us to name it "Cocktail Bar of the Year." Shockingly, not one of the out-of-towners who were making a beeline for the elevators bothered even peeking in, which was fine by us. We quite enjoyed the relative serenity of our comfy banquette.
Drinks uniformly impressed. The enjoyable Boulevardier (bourbon, campari, sweet vermouth)
was a rich, nicely balanced drink, the rock it was served on helping to mellow out and unify the flavors. The Star is their Manhattan variant, a very good drink made with apple brandy, sweet vermouth, orange and angostura bitters. But the biggest hit was something we almost didn't order, the Wildest Redhead (scotch, lemon juice, honey, all-spice dram & dash of cherry heering). Here the lemon brought a nice acidity to balance the scotch, lending a deceptive freshness and lightness to the cocktail, one we could drink over and over. We did actually, come to think of it. Cocktails are $14.
The Rum House (228 W. 47th Street) is a reboot of an old bar at the Edison Hotel, now run by the same guys who opened Ward III in Tribeca. This is an odd duck, a bar a stone's throw from Times Square with a mixed crowd of tourists, old timers and the odd cocktail fan. As opposed to Lantern, which has the pedigree of Raines Law Room behind it, the Ward III connection is far less hip. We hadn't been impressed with our visits to Ward so it remained to be seen whether W. 47th Street could be made passable by the addition of this place.
The first moments were the worst - stepping off the street, the odor was almost too much. The place smelled like a toilet. Not fancy hotel, L'Occitane soap boudoir, but how we imagine that bathroom in the subway stop beneath 42nd Street must smell. But we persevered and ordered a Manhattan (pictured above) made with Templeton Rye from Iowa ($14) as well as The Barrymore ($15), with Bruichladdich single malt, Ramazotti Amaro and Yellow Chartreuse. The former was an interesting take on the classic, good though slightly more herbal than many rye-based renditions, while the Barrymore didn't live up to the potential, more medicinal than delicious. Better was the Diego Rivera ($12), Corazon Tequila, Melletti Amaro, Bonal Gentiane, citrus & egg white, but not so good we would travel for it. There is also a smallish list of rum cocktails which we did not delve into.
Overall, it seems the long wait - assuming anyone in the vicinity was actually waiting - for a good cocktail near Times Square is over. Lantern's Keep has the edge but The Rum House is worth further investigation if you're in the neighborhood.