Manhattan, New York
Story by G. Clay Whittaker
Maybe it’s the case everywhere, but New York bar patrons have always given me the particular impression of merely passing through. You always get the sense that the crowded spaces, which elbow room and privacy might otherwise occupy, are filled with people at different stages of their night—some starting, some wrapping up, some unsure how far along they are, but not neglecting the moment for the journey.
New York City is home to some of the best whiskey bars in the world, including Tommy Tardie’s Fine & Rare and The Flatiron Room, Copper & Oak, Maysville, and American Whiskey. It’s also home to eccentric purveyors of spirits both simple and elaborate, from Brooklyn’s neat-pour-and-grilled-cheese neighborhood bar Noorman’s Kil, all the way up to The Office at The Aviary.
But there’s another place you’ll feel this sensation: the kosher deli. 2nd Avenue Deli was a fixture in my first year in Manhattan, living in a sixth-floor walk-up with a sometimes-kosher roommate who showed me the ropes on hard weekend mornings. The Murray Hill location was this Southerner’s first lesson in good deli food.
The bar concept that the deli’s owners opened in late 2017 would be a second brilliant lesson in subverting expectations, and for this whiskey-drinking Southern boy, 2nd Floor is one of the bars that best captures the identity of New York.
Truth be told, 2nd Floor is a perfect New York bar. Poor signage makes it a bit of a challenge to find for those of us who don’t read directions well. The first task when entering is climbing a steep and winding Manhattan staircase, which in truth could lead to just about anything. But at the summit, you’ll find a sudden, deep sense of familiarity.
The bar makes another elegant nod to the New York melting pot with its cocktails. The entire menu is certified kosher, which sounds limiting until you see that necessity has given birth to some successful inventions. Three of 2nd Floor’s stirred cocktails pair American whiskey with another spirit, creating interesting harmonies like the Unforgiven: a booze-forward, cold-weather hug of bourbon, apple brandy, sherry, rhubarb amaro, and a Syrah reduction; or the Below the Border, made with bourbon, mezcal, amaro, molé, and ghost pepper, which is almost effervescent with spice and smoke.
Except for a few modern novelties and the occasional phone screen, 2nd Floor is all but a replication of what a bar might have looked like a century ago, with tin ceilings, dark wood, and tufted leather booths.
The bar stocks a few dozen bourbons—staples like Weller 107, Four Roses Single Barrel, and Eagle Rare—and other American whiskeys (which of course meet the kosher certifications). The list is occasionally in flux, with a cautious eye to including bottles from other American whiskey categories (so long, of course, as they meet kosher standards—distilleries that also produce liquors using colorings or glycerin don’t qualify if they use the same equipment to make their whiskey).
It’s rare to be able to write with excitement about bar food, but 2nd Floor’s beverage offerings are really complemented by an impressive and inventive light bites menu—perhaps the best on the storied island. Pastrami deviled eggs, fried dumplings, and crispy pastrami sliders are all lovely accompaniments to early, mid-, or late-night drinks, but the home runs are and shall remain the franks in a blanket: tiny kosher frank bites wrapped with a crispy matzo shell, rolled in everything bagel seasoning, and served with mustard.
Food may not be anyone’s first priority in selecting a bar, but in a city where the two don’t necessarily share the same roof with grace, knowing that a spot checks all the boxes can be a savior for a night out, and between the time-tested style of the room, the familiar labels on the bar, and the comfort food in your belly, it quickly starts to feel, well, just like home.
At the heart of it, 2nd Floor wants to surprise you with flavor combinations, but at the same time make everything feel familiar. For people like me—like us—who have had every bourbon under the sun, part of the ongoing exploration of this whiskey culture is finding new ways to enjoy it, and new interpretations of that familiar sensation of grabbing a drink in a warm and welcoming space.