After a full day of investigation and research on an editorial trip, it’s a great pleasure to take a moment to relax over an aperitif before reviewing a restaurant for dinner. We seek out bars that have an atmosphere conducive to conversation as well as enticing lists of drinks that one wouldn’t find at an average corner pub. And, like hotels, bars should feel like they are somewhere, not just anywhere.
Hotel Vilòn occupies a 16th-century mansion, a former annex to the neighboring Palazzo Borghese. Its transformation into a hotel introduced a decadent, glamorous décor, especially in the bar. There, the art deco style is softened by bright paintings and fresh flower arrangements; seating groups look fashionable but invite relaxation. The wine list includes 14 well-chosen, mostly Italian selections by glass, while the cocktail menu has a mix of classics and more-creative concoctions. We opted for a drink from the “Forgotten and Vintage” page: a smooth and very well-integrated Negroni that had been aged for two weeks in a decanter. It was served by a friendly bartender smartly attired in a white shirt, vest and tie, who also brought a complimentary assortment of tempting bar snacks and tapas. If we lived in Rome, we would be a regular at this bar, which manages to be both glamorous and comfortable.
Via dell'Arancio 69. Rome. Tel. (39) 06-878-187
Santa Barbara, California, United States
This upscale Spanish restaurant in the waterfront district serves innovative tapas on a lovely patio warmed by a hearth or in a dining room with white-brick walls and patterned tile floors. The perfectly balanced Roja sangria bursts with fruity flavor, while Loquita’s excellent wine list is broken down into selections from Catalunya, Galicia, Andalucia, Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Santa Barbara. But it is the creative cocktails that are especially enticing. Five unique takes on the gin and tonic come with accents that include makrut lime infusions, pickled watermelon, sangria foam and Valdespino fino sherry. Other original cócteles include the Suavizar made with coconut fat-washed rum, the restaurant’s signature martini enlivened by garlic and Arbequina olive oil, and the Botánica, brightened with cucumber, ginger and passion fruit.
202 State Street, Santa Barbara, California. Tel. (805) 880-3380
New York, New York, United States
Several of the prominent hotels in Midtown Manhattan have notable bars — the King Cole Bar at the St. Regis and the rooftop Salon de Ning at [The Peninsula[(/hotels/peninsula-new-york/), to name but two — but our favorite place for an early evening cocktail has become the ground-floor bar at The Whitby Hotel on West 56th Street. A long pewter bar top is complemented by banquettes and small tables, while the décor is colorful and stylish without being overwhelming. The atmosphere is animated, but you can still conduct a conversation without shouting, and the service manages to be both crisp and friendly. The flamboyant menu of signature cocktails includes the Whitby Paloma, made with Ocho Blanco tequila, housemade orange and grapefruit marmalade, fresh pink grapefruit, lime and Fever-Tree club soda, while the Smokey Old Fashioned comprises Laphroaig Quarter Cask, Antica Formula, Pedro Ximénez, salted maple and Angostura bitters. The bar menu also draws us back, with its delicious Parmesan-and-truffle gougères, popcorn shrimp with wasabi aioli and deviled eggs with caviar. Frankly, the only challenge is not to overindulge and thereby destroy your appetite for dinner.
The Whitby Bar & Restaurant
18 West 56th Street, New York. Tel. (212) 586-5656
Isle of Islay, Scotland
The recent revamping of The Machrie hotel and golf links on the Hebridean Isle of Islay has been big news in Scotland. The reinvention of the late-19th-century inn has created a stylish 47-room hotel. And the golf course itself, created in 1891 by the fabled Scottish golfer Willie Campbell, is now one of the very best courses in a nation full of great ones. More than anything else, Islay is about whisky, and the island is home to no fewer than nine distilleries. Nowadays, however, tourists also come to sample its gin, notably one called the Botanist, which is produced with local spring water and nine core berries, barks, seeds and peels, plus 22 botanicals that grow wild and are foraged by hand. At The Machrie, the bar and restaurant — called 18 because it overlooks the 18th green — is a dramatic, airy, high-ceilinged space with a vaulted glass ceiling and an outdoor terrace offering panoramic views over the links, down to the blue expanse of Laggan Bay. Sliding glass doors open to a second-floor deck, which provides the perfect place to enjoy a sunset cocktail. Islay may be a relative backwater, but 18 boasts big-city bartending, thanks to its talented young mixologist. His take on a classic Manhattan is brilliant, and he crafts as good a gin and tonic as I have ever tasted — with the Botanist Islay gin, of course.
Isle of Islay, Scotland. Tel. (44) 1496-302-310
During Tokyo’s most unusual omakase, you eat nothing. Instead, you drink. At a hideaway in tony Azabu-Juban, a natural mizunara oak bar seats eight patrons who book exactly one month ahead. The reservations system bespeaks the eponymous bartender’s exactitude. Yamamoto creates drinks according to the season, time of day, weather. Even the humidity level, he says, affects the volume of liquid and its sweetness. He presses bright Japanese citrus with a glass muddler set over a strainer to capture the pith’s intensity, blending the juice with strawberry eau de vie for a refreshing elixir. He employs the same technique on rich, slow-growing tomatoes from Shizuoka. Including fizzy Japanese pétillant naturel and native honey, the tomato cocktail has an exuberant aroma and lip-smacking acidity. Fuji apple, fresh wasabi and America’s historic Templeton rye; kabocha squash, salt, milk, Armagnac and a matcha tea float — the drinks sound strange, but their components blend beautifully for an inspired, harmonious happy hour.
Anniversary Building, 1-6-4 Azabu-Juban, Minato-ku, Tokyo. Tel. (81) 3-6434-0652