By Scott Daniels
It depends on the place, but I normally stick with a martini as the usual thing to have before dinner at a restaurant. It's such an absolute standard, with a history stretching back nearly a century, that ordering a martini should be as simple as speaking the word.
What your server brings back should then be a cocktail of gin and dry vermouth stirred with ice and poured into a funnel shaped, stemmed glass with a garnish of a plump olive or two on a stick. Saying "martini, please" has only worked for me once: at a place which labeled itself a "speakeasy" in Manhattan. The bartender mixed up the proper drink, and served a bit of it in a glass while the rest of it went into a mini carafe nestled into a bed of ice. Nicely done, sir.
Rather elaborate martini setup, but well made.
But it's the 21st century, a golden age of cocktail creation and bartender creativity. It is now common to find a full "martini menu" in most places, and having such a selection is a point of pride for extablishments who offer them.
There are espresso martinis, pomegranate martinis, martinis made with variously flavored vodkas or, at times, tequila. You can try pineapple martinis, appletinis, the usual cosmopolitan variation...
So looking at your server and asking "martini, please," will bring a blank look and the feeling of being a hopelessly un-savvy drinker.
And so, I've taken to being quite specific, with a ready speech:
"I'd like a gin martini with whatever gin you normally use, up, olive, NOT dirty."
You have to add the last bit as so many people ask for a dribble of olive juice in their drink that it has pretty much become the norm.
Amid all this really remarkable cocktail creativity, asking for one of the old-school, standard drinks means you may very well be asking for something the bartender has never made. A 7-ingredient tropical concoction, sure. A Bloody Mary with enough garnishes to pass for lunch, certainly. But as I found one late night at a bar in a fair sized southern U.S. city, asking for a manhattan may just bring your server back to the table a few times for clarification.
Aside from the classic martini, here are a couple of cocktails which may not appear on the menu at your favorite watering hole, but are worth knowing about and perhaps sharing with a bartender not in-the-know.
A favorite among members of The Fedora Lounge is the Sidecar. The origins have something to do with a fellow who had been riding in a motorcycle sidecar who wanted something to warm him up. The brandy mixture did the trick.
2 ounces Brandy (cognac)
1 ounce Cointreau
1/2 ounce lemon juice
Shake with ice. Strain into cocktail glass.
Enjoying a resurgence of popularity, along with the great bourbon/whiskey/rye boom, is the Old Fashioned. The story goes that, once Harry and Bess Truman had moved into the White House, they ordered Old Fashions from the house bartender. Drinks were made and sent up, and Mrs. truman repeatedly sent them back with a note: "Too sweet." Finally, the exasperated bartender sent up straight bourbon over ice, which saw the return of an empty tray and the note: "Now THAT is how we like our Old fashioned!"
2 ounces Bourbon or rye
3 dashes angostura bitters
1 sugar cube (or 1/2 teaspoon sugar)
Dash club soda
Place the sugar cube in the bottom of an old fashioned glass and hit it with the bitters. Add a small bit of club soda and mash it all together. Swirl the glass a bit to coat the inside, add a single large ice cube, and pour in the bourbon or rye. Stir well.
And of course, the Manhattan. We like ours over ice, but take it up if we trust the person making them.
2 parts bourbon or rye
1 part sweet vermouth
In an old fashioned glass, pour the liquids over the ice, and add the cherry. Stir well.