A few days ago I was sitting impatiently at a bar doing my best not to roll my eyes. This is not an irregularity. I spend quite a bit of time in bars for both personal and professional reasons, and over the past few years I’ve watched certain trends and attitudes trespass over the simple joys of having a proper drink. I’ve begrudgingly come to accept these changes. For example, I am no longer surprised when a bartender—sorry, a mixologist—sports knuckle tattoos or looks like he sleeps in a bus terminal. I’ve come to terms with cocktail menus that contain words like artisanal, house-chipped, and bespoke. I no longer shake my head in disbelief when a vintage perfume atomizer is used to top my cocktail with an absinthe vapor. And, recently, when I waited several minutes for a bartender to attach a few sprigs of locally grown herbs to the side of my glass with a tiny clothespin, my scoffs were barely audible.
But the one trend I refuse to accept is what I call the “Bartender’s Skim.” I’m sure you’ve seen this small but maddening embezzlement occur at various bars. You order a drink and watch as the bartender begins toying with beakers, eye-droppers, and mini bottles of house-made bitters. Then, after what seems like an eternity of combining, mixing, and stirring, the bartender finally strains the cocktail into a glass, and you become giddy with anticipation. But you must wait. Because just when you think the bartender is finished, he dips a tiny straw into the glass to extract some of the liquid. He then puts the straw in his mouth and tastes the drink as if something could have gone so awry during the mixing process that the Manhattan you ordered, a drink he has made hundreds of times, is at risk of tasting like Diet Dr. Pepper. This is theft masquerading under the guise of quality control.
When I want to escape today’s cocktail frustrations, I head across the country to the one place I know will never succumb to trends, Musso & Frank on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles. The restaurant opened in 1919 and is so unapologetic about its age that the owners still refer to the second dining room, which was added in 1934, as the “The New Room.” To sit at the bar is to experience the elegant yet uncomplicated pleasures of a well-made drink. At Musso’s, a four-ounce martini is served in a two-ounce cocktail glass, while the remaining two ounces wait patiently nearby in a small carafe surrounded by crushed ice. It’s where bartenders born sometime during the Mesozoic Era talk of bouncing Steve McQueen and what type of Scotch Gore Vidal preferred (Black Label, neat). It’s a man-bun, neck-tattoo, drink-skimming free oasis of classic style and polished service where time stands still. It’s where a man can find the strength to tolerate the pretentious trends that will undoubtedly pass, and take comfort in the knowledge that some things will never change.