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Laura Clark's bar blog: Fairytale of New York

Published:  07 January, 2011

"They got cars big as bars, they got rivers of gold, but the wind goes right through you, it's no place for the old," lilts Kirsty MacColl on repeat in my head as I stand in the freezing snow at 1am on Manhattan's Lower East Side a week before Christmas.

Cars as big as bars is certainly right judging from the past six hours I've spent traveling in a beast of a people carrier across New York's sprawling boroughs to visit five of the city's most impressive bars. And as I stand on Eldridge Street with the snow heaping up around my feet and the bitterly cold wind howling past me, I'm certainly beginning to appreciate why all New Yorkers sport ear-warmers in the winter.

I'm outside an unmarked door with only the letters M&H stuck on to identify it. To be honest, without the knowledge of the UK-based spirits blogger I'm with - who is currently ringing the doorbell with all the British politeness he can muster in the arctic conditions - I would have walked straight past without a second glance.

The tatty, peeling-off letters on the door are the only clue to what lies behind - the illusive Milk & Honey bar. This speakeasy-style drinking hole is such a well-kept secret most people don't believe it actually exists. But for those not prepared to accept the urban myth and who do some digging, the only way to gain entry is by ringing ahead to make an appointment. No dropping in for a quick martini before dinner here. Luckily I'm with someone in the know and seconds before I'm about to write off the whole thing as a figment of his imagination, the door locks spring open.

We pass through two thick black velvet curtains and a host of surveillance equipment before we enter the inner sanctum - a long, thin room resembling a railway carriage, with exposed brickwork, booths lit by candle light and a well-loved wooden bar covered in scratch marks by decades of drinkers.

The bartender who permits us entrance is suited and booted with a waistcoat and tie, and I wouldn't be surprised to find a mobster with pin-striped suit and tilted fedora follow us in. Everything about the bar encourages you to suspend belief and be transported back to the glamorous and secretive Age of Prohibition - from the hushed tones you're encouraged to speak in, to the dimmed lighting. Apparently even the bar front is disguised as a derelict Jewish tailor's shop - not that I noticed in between all the teeth chattering.

Parked up on high stools at the bar, the Milk & Honey experience begins with the bartender bringing us strawberries to enjoy while we began chatting about our cocktail likes and dislikes. No menu here, just a bartender with a genuine interest in the flavours you desire or despise, and all the time in the world to talk about them.

The service is friendly and laid-back, and everything is hand squeezed, chopped or poured right in front of you with precision and a evident love for the art of bartending. Our fellow drinkers at the bar are friends of the bartender so conversation is lively and warm.

Three, or maybe it was four cocktails down, and four hours later, it feels about time to brave the elements and head to the comfort of my bed. But not before a couple of shots with the bartenders and remaining guests, and some more jovial quips about... actually what the meandering conversations were about escapes me now. I think it's safe to say this bar was certainly one that floweth with milk and honey. The only problem will be remembering next time where to find such a land. And persuading people it ever existed in the first place.