Behind the Bar Bar Talk

‘21’ Club’s Tara Wright on Bartending at a Legendary NYC Establishment

Tara Dolan Wright has been making drinks for ‘21’ Club’s sophisticated clientele since 2005. The bar and restaurant has been around for 86 years all while customers’ tastes keep changing, both in terms of what they’re drinking and what they look for in their favorite watering hole. Wright says today’s imbibing crowd comes in with more knowledge and expectations and seeks more olive juice in its drinks. Who knows if it was a residual effect of the trendy Mediterranean diet from a few years back, but “the amount of dirt in the Dirty Martinis is striking,” says Wright.

She also notes the idea of happy hour is gone. “We can blame and thank the internet, but 9 to 5 doesn’t really exist anymore, and happy hour doesn’t either. It used to be at 5 o’clock bars were filled and offices closed down because you weren’t doing business around the world 24 hours a day.”

Wright expounds on four ways things have changed at the classic establishment.

Manhattans and Martinis are classics popular with ‘21’ Club’s clientele (image: Paul Wagtouicz)

1. It’s getting dirty out there.

“What’s really different is the amount of olive juice people have in Martinis. More people are ordering Dirty Martinis, and it used to be fairly unusual, but people want them dirty and extra dirty. There are a lot of people wanting it very dirty, so it’s almost as much olive juice as vodka. It’s become so common for people to have Dirty Martinis that there are young people who are afraid to ask for an olive as a garnish, because they don’t want it that dirty. I’ve found it funny, like one young man hesitated to order an olive as a garnish because he didn’t want the juice, and I explained to him that olives are a traditional garnish and a Dirty Martini isn’t the norm.”

2. Customers are hitting the tap.

“We used to have a [smaller] beer list that would have gone over very well in the ’70s, when imported beers were the craft beer of the time, but we never really had a beer program here. Now we have nine drafts, including Prohibition and Goose Island Green Line Pale Ale. I was always shocked at how few people came in to ‘21’ looking for beer. But now [with the 2011 addition of the bar] we have draft and a beer program, and more people are ordering. The beer thing has become like wine, where there are so many people expecting different things and making their own.”

Manhattans and Martinis are classics popular with ‘21’ Club’s clientele (image: Paul Wagtouicz)

3. Bartenders better know their stuff.

“The expectation is that the bartender is not just the person who you call your order to but that we know stuff. Now there are artisanal gins, and we have some awareness of the smaller companies. That’s part of the growth of cocktail culture. There’s an increasing knowledge of ryes and bourbons and all the artisanal products and options, and there’s an expectation of us knowing that. People have more of a need to be experts, not only because they have internet in their homes but because now they walk around with it. You don’t need to be curious very long.”

4. There are always holdouts.

“Our base clientele knows what they’re going to have when they come in. They know their regular drink. We do sell a lot of Old Fashioneds at ’21’; they’ve had a resurgence. We’ve made tons of Martinis, tons of Manhattans, and we sell a lot of your basic Vodka Tonics, and Johnnie Walker Black on the rocks. We all have an arsenal of here’s what I make, and we can do things off the list.”