Editor’s note: When it comes to food and drink, there’s something for everyone on the Lower East Side. In our magazine last month, we featured some of the guys behind the counters at the neighborhood’s classic diners. This month, we went in a totally different direction, profiling a new cocktail bar in a very familiar spot on Eldridge Street.
When Attaboy’s Michael McIlroy stands at the edge of your table and asks you what you like – not what you would like to order from a multiple-choice drink menu, but what you like – he is both genuinely curious and absolutely confident. He clarifies a few preferences: sweet or not sweet, brown liquor or clear, any must-do’s or don’ts. He floats a suggestion or two to gauge your reaction and states which fresh fruits he has on hand that evening. And then he nods and says assuredly, “I’ve got something for you.”
The result of this interview might be a refreshing ginger-infused version of a Dark & Stormy or a smooth gin nightcap called a Rolls Royce–or any one of a million variations of spirits, spices, sodas and accoutrements from a large repertoire, depending on your tastes. A sheer love of the art of mixing pervades the place, with creative riffs on classic cocktails and original recipes developed over many years of messing around with a shaker. And while Attaboy’s drinks are all custom-made and not cheap at $16 each, they are concocted and delivered without laborious hoopla or pretension.
After careers tending bar at other people’s establishments — most recently as disciples of Sasha Petraske at his groundbreaking Milk & Honey at the same address, 134 Eldridge St. — McIlroy and partner Sam Ross have launched a new generation of Lower East Side speakeasy. After two long years of planning, Attaboy debuted in March, the same month that Petraske relocated Milk & Honey to larger digs in the Flatiron District. The renovated room is still small and cozy, but the front has been opened up with more natural light and the size of the bar has doubled. The vibe on a recent weekday night was laid-back and welcoming; McIlroy was serving tables with unhurried enthusiasm.
Attaboy’s approach to the drinking experience is more relaxed than its predecessor, with canned beer chasers and playful threats of installing TVs so the staff can watch the Mets play while they work. Unlike the original Milk & Honey, reservations are not required, but there’s still a buzzer on the unremarkable door. A large “A” that shows through the front window is the only mark of its current tenant, which is named after a vintage store in Belfast, McIlvoy’s hometown. (Ross is Australian.)
The partners love to rise to customers’ challenges: for example, if you tell them how many rounds you plan to drink, they will design a series of courses for your evening, from aperitifs forward. If you have a favorite French vermouth you think no one else has ever heard of, they probably have it. But they also embrace newbies to the world of artisan cocktails. In a recent Heritage Radio Network interview, they noted that as wide and deep as their knowledge and love of spirits are, they carefully tailor their approach to novice drinkers, because the last thing they want, as McIlroy put it, is for patrons to “come in and be spending their hard-earned cash and be made to feel like an idiot.”
While the high-end cocktail scene isn’t for everyone’s taste or budget, make no mistake that time spent at Attaboy is its own kind of performance experience, showcasing a serious craft. That said, it’s not all serious business.
“It’s a bar that does have exceptional drinks–and don’t get me wrong, it’s not like a rowdy, Coyote Ugly sort of an affair in there,” Ross said in the radio interview. “But it’s a fun place . . . and it’s good to be doing this in a fun setting again.”