It's fitting that The Summit Bar would be ordained New York Magazine's "Best Cocktail Bar" of 2010 after its owners set out specifically to make it the "Anti-Cocktail Bar." Perhaps TimeOut's appraisal of the Alphabet City staple as the "Most Democratic Cocktail Bar" is more accurate. The Summit Bar has the merits of a speakeasy without the formalities, which is to say the drinks are delicious and the bouncer doesn't carry a seating chart.
We caught up with co-owner and cocktail architect Greg Seider at his place of work, which also happens to be many New Yorkers' place of worship, while he whipped up a four gallon batch of tequila-based holiday punch. He talked to us about his 14 years of experience bartending in the city, elaborated on plans for a new establishment in the space formerly occupied by The Elephant, and even invented a new cocktail to accompany our conversation: The Gothamist. (The Summit Bar's other owner Hamid Rashidzada cameos at the end to discuss their upcoming Italian restaurant in the East Village.)
2010 wasn’t a bad year for The Summit Bar. What’s the best compliment you’ve received from a satisfied customer? Someone called me from either Australia or South Africa. They loved one of our cocktails so much that they were making it all the way around the world and wanted me to talk them through it.
How does The Summit Bar buck the speakeasy trend? Our intention was to create the anti-cocktail bar by having a product that’s amazing and at the highest level, but letting people fucking relax. We can get a little crazy if we want to, let people come behind the bar and make stuff. Those guys come here to let loose. There is so much play room, but the root of it is in the quality of the product and four-star customer service.
The Summit Bar is the first place you’ve co-owned, but you’ve been working as a bartender in the city since 1996. How did you start out? Asia de Cuba was my full on introduction to bartending here. Back then there was so much energy going on, it was so much fun opening a place at the level of Asia de Cuba. You definitely had a celebrity-esque status bartending at the spots back in the day. Lots of people who you'd normally only read about are suddenly at your bar, asking you for drinks, and you almost have a status where it’s like, “Oh, you want something from me, I’m not just waiting on your table.”
Has the scene changed much since then? I don’t want to say that the criteria has changed, like design and service and music, but the barometer for what’s successful is different now. Nightlife doesn’t feel like inner circle New York to me anymore. If you and I wanted to go out back in the day, there’d be those “New York, New York” spots that didn’t deal with the tourists, but it’s very hard to find that today.
What’s your best tipping story? When I worked at Asia de Cuba, Michael Jordan left me tickets on my answering machine because he liked my drinks so much. I didn’t expect to come home to that.
Do you think there is something special about the New York bar scene, or is it like any other city? I don’t think you can compete with the characters that exist here, no matter how exciting or lull the nightlife is. Maybe in San Fransisco, with access to all those cool botanicals, has a wider variety of ingredients. Maybe they have more opportunities to go into historic spaces and create something really unique, but it comes down to who is filling the room and I feel that’s what sets the New York scene apart.
Speaking of ingredients, how is your greenhouse on 8th street faring in the cold? The greenhouse is still in construction, but there’s certain stuff that maintains in the winter time. My brother has been in Rhode Island for a little while, but he’s coming back and work on the greenhouse.
All your drinks are mighty fancy, but what did you drink while you were in college? [Shakes his head] Bad things. Other than beer, I think I drank a lot of Old Granddad Bourbon and Gingerale. Nothing that I’d carry in my bar.
What’s your process for coming up with a cocktail? Cooking with my friends mostly. It would help if I could travel more, because I get inspired by being in a country. One of my best friends is at Le Bernardin, so she obviously has access to some of the best ingredients in the world. We meet up almost every week for dinner, and while we're making dishes I’ll be thinking, “how about this and this with bourbon, or this with tequila.”
The Situation, Shu Jam Fizz and She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not—how exactly do you name your cocktails? It just comes to me. It sometimes takes longer to name a cocktail than to create it, because the name is a part of the whole package. It needs to have a story behind it.
Can you make up a drink up on the spot? Perhaps inspired by your favorite New York City-centric news, food, arts and events blog? [Laughs] “The Gothamist,” we can absolutely do that: 2oz Yamazaki 12 year, 1oz spiced cranberry agave, 1/2oz apple cider, 3/4oz Japanese Yuzu, 2 dashes of orange bitters, grated cardamon on top with an orange peel to garnish.
We also managed to catch hold of Hamid Rashidzada, Seider's business partner at The Summit Bar, to discuss their upcoming restaurant in the East Village.
So we hear you’re going to be opening up an Italian restaurant called Prima Strada on, unsurprisingly, 1st street. Can you give us some more details? The design is actually going to incorporate the kitchen and bar as one unit. We’re doing a full renovation. Seider will be making Italian-inspired cocktails with things like Aperol and Fernet Branca—he has three months to figure it out. It’s all going to be pretty basic recipes and presentation but made with really nice ingredients. Price-wise it’ll be cheaper than most of the restaurants around there. Kyle Herrman, who used to be with Jean Georges, is on board. He’s worked with us before, so he’ll be taking care of business. It’s going to be fun.
And Prima Strada is going to be in the space newly left vacant by the Elephant? Yeah, they were friends of ours, so that's how we found the space. We bought it from them. We had been speaking to them for a couple of months and finally came to terms, so we told them they could close.
Do you have an opening date yet? We’re doing construction January, February and March, so we should be ready by mid-April unless there are any delays.