New York City’s best bartenders don’t have a lot of time off. But when they do get a chance to go out, they know the best bars, the best places to eat, and all the late-night spots. In VinePair’s new Night Out series, we’ll be speaking with some of the top bartenders in the city to learn what they do when they aren’t hard at work. Consider this your guide to the perfect night out.
Few people know a properly balanced cocktail like Jim Kearns. Kearns is the beverage director and partner at Slowly Shirley, the upscale cocktail bar beneath The Happiest Hour in the West Village. Slowly Shirley features a staggering number of cocktails crafted with homemade ingredients, hard-to-find liquors, and often-unexpected flavors like soy and horseradish.
But working with drinks wasn’t always in Kearns’ life plans. He moved to New York City 15 years ago to finish a bachelor of fine arts in photography. He’d worked in the service industry for 10 years in Phoenix, where he’s from, and was ready to leave that behind. Financial needs pushed him back into it.
He worked as a food runner at Balthazar, then as a barback and eventually started picking up drink tickets when the bartenders stepped out for cigar breaks. He was moved up to bartender, and then tended bar at the DuMont in Brooklyn. By 2015, he was looking for work again.
“I was just thinking I just need to make money, I’ll go to Meatpacking and sling vodka sodas for $500 a night, thinking those were easy jobs to get,” Kearns tells me from across the bar at Slowly Shirley. It wasn’t easy to get. Kearns did, however, meet Sasha Petraske, the man largely credited with initiating the modern cocktail revival.
Kearns joined on for Double Seven and went through more than a month of rigorous cocktail training.
“It was a real eye opener and a cool commodity and opened my mind to the possibility of bartending being something that I could pursue more seriously than just as a means to an end,” Kearns says. He was hooked. He’s since bartended at more places than he can count. In 2014, he came in and helped design the bar and develop the cocktail program at Slowly Shirley.
Here are his suggestions for the perfect night out.
Where to eat
When it comes to getting a nice dinner with his wife, Kearns likes to stay around the Carroll Gardens neighborhood in Brooklyn where he lives.
His regular spot is Frankies 457, a cozy Italian spot with a garden. He also suggests Leyenda, a Mexican restaurant with Latin spirits and a solid cocktail program, and Clover Club, a cocktail bar with a small plates menu.
For a great restaurant, cocktail program, and a quiet drink, Kearns suggests Prime Meats.
Where to drink cocktails
If you’re in Brooklyn, Kearns’ favorite restaurants more often than not double as great places to get cocktails. He also suggests Long Island Bar and Fort Defiance.
In the West Village and Greenwich Village by Slowly Shirley, Kearns suggests heading over to The Up & Up and Analogue for cocktails, and Employees Only for drinks and late-night eats.
The new spot he’s most excited about
New bars and restaurants come and go in New York. The new place that Kearns is most excited about is The Office, and Aviary, which is run by the renowned Alinea group from Chicago.
What to drink at Slowly Shirley
This is a place where letting the bartender help you pick a drink is nothing to be ashamed of. Give Kearns or any of the other bartenders a little direction of what you like and don’t like and let the bartender take it from there.
The most popular drinks are the Village Bicycle — made with ginger, lychee, and lime — and Swamp Fire, which is made with green chartreuse, cilantro, pineapple, and chili. Another favorite is the Temple Street Sour, which has ginger, horseradish syrup, lemon, rice wine vinegar, California gin, and Cognac.