By Gamal Hennessy
Speakeasy style cocktail lounges have been a staple in New York nightlife for the past five years. These venues have all shared two distinct features until now. They all featured crafted drinks made with fresh ingredients instead of artificial concentrates from a soda gun. They were also famously difficult to get into, enforcing a list of rules longer than the health care reform bill. This month there is a new lounge jumping into the cocktail market that is trying to keep the drinks and lose the rules. At first glance, Painkiller is succeeding.
Painkiller resides in a space formerly occupied by the East Side Company on the corner of Grand and Essex Streets. The space got a make over from operators who got their training and influence from established lounges like Milk and Honey, Little Branch, Dutch Kills as well as East Side Company itself.
You won’t miss the place if you look for the wall of tiki masks and spears as you walk down Essex Street. You might have to wait a few moments to get in so the host can check the size of the crowd in the room. Unlike other spots that keep you outside just for show, you’ll realize when you go inside it is more of a necessity here. There is often a throng of patrons at the bar when you first walk in the door. You’ll need to use all the skills you developed in your yoga classes to contort yourself past the huddled mob to reach Nirvana in the back room.
The décor of Painkiller is tiki inspired graffiti (or graffiti inspired tiki depending on how you look at it). Polynesian style masks and bamboo touches on one wall face Beat Street style tags from established local artists on the other wall. The lights often brighten and dim randomly (which can be a little disconcerting because you might think your drunken eyes are playing tricks on you as you sip). The music is mostly remixed old school hip hop with a dose of chill out thrown in. Several of the owners are steeped in New York music history from The Bronx and Hollis, Queens which gives overall space a very East Coast hip hop feel. That, combined with the tiki decorations separate the bar from other cocktail lounges that often go for a strict Prohibition Era vibe. The crowd is a mix of the younger LES/ Williamsburg set along with some older hard core drinkers. It is a very different scene than a spot like PDT or Flatiron Lounge.
The drinks menu is printed on paper placemats that only give you the name of the drink and the shape of the glass it comes in. You won’t get a hint of what is in any of the cocktails, how strong they are or which one shows up on fire (hint: It’s the Cradle of Life). If you really need to know what you are getting into, the waitress will give away the show and tell you the ingredients. If you want to substitute one ingredient for another, they can do that for you too, but it makes sense to try the drinks in their original form at least for the first round. The drinks will arrive encased in deep goblets of ice or weird looking tiki mugs. Pushing the straw into that mini glacier and sampling your cocktail is a rewarding experience whether you pick the mai tai, the zombie or the venue’s namesake drink.
Painkiller offers strong, complex drinks without the elitism of more established cocktail lounges. It is cash only. There are no passwords, secret entrances in phone booths, last minute reservations or pit bulls guarding the door. Some people will miss that sense of taboo that comes from pretending liquor is still illegal and from a service standpoint there is a case to be made for keeping the number of patrons in a cocktail lounge small. If the bartender has to spend several minutes measuring, cutting, muddling and otherwise crafting your drink, there are only so many people she can serve before the delay between ordering and drinking becomes a problem. At this point management feels their bartenders can deal the increased volume without sacrificing quality but the real test will come during the summer when everyone wants a drink buried in ice.