Inside The Aviary NYC

Get a sneak preview of America's hottest cocktail bar

Micah Melton, the beverage director of The Alinea Group, had just finished a morning of interviews in New York when we spoke in mid-August. "We're hiring 10 bartenders, 20 servers, eight cooks and eight more managers," he told me. And that's just to get started. He's also buying 25 types of glasses, with orders for 75 to 225 of each. "We will use 1,200 to 1,500 glasses a day—and that's not water glasses. We plan on selling upwards of 900 cocktails."

He was talking about The Aviary NYC, an outpost of the iconic Chicago bar, which will open its doors on the 35th floor of the Mandarin Oriental, New York this September. There are already 220 gallons of alcohol on reserve, including three barrels of whiskey and a barrel of apple brandy. "There's only so much space in the hotel for alcohol storage. We're still wrapping our heads around 'Where does 35 gallons of whiskey go?'" he said.

Photo: Matthew Gilson

But they'll figure it out. The owners, after all, are Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas, the duo behind some of the country's most acclaimed restaurants and bars, most notably Alinea in Chicago. The Aviary is the second part of their one-two-punch launch in the New York cocktail market and their first project outside of Chicago. Earlier this summer, the group opened an outpost of their speakeasy concept, The Office, in the space next door to the forthcoming Aviary.

The two openings have been in the works for years, with the idea for a New York project tracing back to before 2011 when The Aviary Chicago opened. "There are a lot of different stories," Melton said. But the one he recalled goes something like this: The Mandarin reached out to The Alinea Group, asking if they would consider opening an Alinea in one of their hotels. "Nick [Kokonas] basically said, 'We're not going to do Alinea, but we'll redo your bars.' I don't know if he was joking or not." But first and foremost, Melton clarified, New York is a city that "makes sense for us as a group. . . . It's the top of the top in terms of what people look at in the country."

Replicating iconic bars or restaurants in another city can present challenges for restaurateurs: How do you open a project that feels enough like the original but isn't a dated carbon copy? The Aviary has a built-in advantage here: The original idea for the bar was for it to "look like a hotel bar in 2020," Melton explained. While that's now only three years in the future, The Aviary in Chicago still has the feeling of being from a different place and time. Cocktails aren't made behind a bar but in a "drink kitchen" enclosed in a metal cage that flirts with the border of futuristic and dystopian. Cocktails arrive at tables smoking or in a balloon that's pierced to release a scent. Others come with slingshots or temporary tattoos. (As Melton said, "You're definitely going to remember it the next morning.") Most morph as they're sipped, and some can be paired with small bites from the kitchen as part of two tasting menu options.

Photo: The Alinea Group

A handful of those cocktails will make their way to NYC, along with drinks and dishes from the archives. "In the music industry, it's like the greatest hits," Melton said. A new market means "you can revisit things from the past," like the Black Truffle Explosion, a liquid-center raviolo filled with a strong stock of black truffles cooked in a truffle beurre monté. "It's probably the best bite of all time," Melton added.

The project in New York, however, won't be an exact replica of the original. That metal cage will be replaced by a glass wall ("unless something drastic happens," Melton joked) separating the dining room and the "drink kitchen," which is on a platform for all to see. And that isn't the only view guests will have. One side of the space is essentially floor-to-ceiling windows that look out onto the bustling Columbus Circle and the southwest corner of Central Park.

The bar won't be a strictly evening affair either. Keeping with the "hotel bar" concept, there will be breakfast and drinks early in the day—a first for The Alinea Group. It's still unclear what that breakfast will look like, but "it will have The Alinea Group fingerprint for sure . . . with global influences," Achatz said. New York's international flare and the Mandarin's clientele mean the team can "push boundaries on what breakfast and lunch and bar food [are]," Melton added. "We could do Australian or Japanese breakfast. . . . That's not to say we won't offer eggs and hash browns."

Photo: The Alinea Group

The team will also work New York flavors and locally produced alcohols into their offerings, 10 to 15 of which will be new or tweaked for the location. Take a drink Melton refers to as The Pillow. In Chicago, a plastic bag is filled with the aroma of oatmeal and pierced tableside. But in New York, Melton's working on a scent that will recall a local breakfast of coffee, orange juice and bagels. He's also updating an old-fashioned from Chicago called In the Rocks. "The plan in New York is to riff on the idea of the ball dropping on New Year's Eve—a huge, iconic NYC celebration," Melton said. "I can't say much beyond that without ruining the surprise." Let the countdown begin.

Devra Ferst is a freelance writer, editor and cooking teacher. Follow her on Instagram at @dferst.

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