Naren Young Turned a 100-Year-Old Cafe Into New York's Coolest Cocktail Bar
At this year’s Tales of the Cocktail, held last week in New Orleans, Dante, a 100-year-old Greenwich Village café, was a finalist for Best New American Cocktail Bar. It was certainly the oldest place to ever earn that nomination, and it wouldn’t be there without its bartender, Naren Young (Saxon + Parole), who was also a finalist for American Bartender of the Year. Young and his partners took the bar over last year and transformed it into a charming European-inspired café with large windows and sidewalk seating, green awnings, a bright white color palette with curved booths and painted brick walls, and a cocktail list focused on aperitifs and low-proof drinks.
The bar, which opened in June 2015, hosted a pop-up event in a New Orleans art gallery, and its “fluffy orange juice” (a take on the Garibaldi) was the talk of Tales. We caught up with Young after the festival to chat about how he and his partners developed a new concept in an iconic location, how they keep the old-school spirit of the place alive and why low-proof drinks need to be here to stay.
How did you come up with the concept for Dante?
[Partner Linden Pride] was the one who found the space. It wasn’t on the market yet, but we looked at it and were aware that it was a very historic landmark in New York and we were excited about taking on something with that kind of history. It was a modern Italian café, very simple, and we wanted to elevate the food and drink offerings and reinvigorate it but maintain the historical integrity. It was a kind of relaxing place where the local community could come, but was more of a restaurant, with coffee and gelato, than a cocktail bar. So we wanted to elevate the bar program and do what we do best—opening great bars.
How did you keep the integrity of the original café while revamping the concept?
In some ways, the past of Dante dictated the future concept. It was Italian, but it’s more European now, with a focus on aperitivo. And we didn’t want to change the name.
What was your goal for the menu?
We knew we wanted to do low-alcohol, refreshing aperitifs, that style of drinking, in a European and Italian-inspired place. In terms of the menu, I wanted to broaden it and make it a bit more about the great aperitifs of Europe, with a Pimm’s Cup from England, pastis from France, sherry from Spain, bitters like Campari and Aperol and amari from Italy, white Port from Portugal. We try to keep things simple but innovate where necessary.
Dante is known for its Negroni Sessions, a menu of Negroni riffs that are available all day and are $9 from 4-7pm. What about the Negroni is so appealing to you?
We’re close to NYU and there are so many happy hours. The Negroni is such a classic and it’s the antithesis of a happy hour drink. What happy hour stands for in America is to drink as quickly as you can; that’s the opposite of what we want. I wanted to take the happy hour and do something on-concept, something that’s way more elegant and civilized. The Negroni was perfect—it’s a classic Italian drink, though it’s not as much a part of pop culture as the old fashioned was five or six years ago. It’s also a polarizing drink. You can start with more modern variation, and the list is so varied that you’ll find something you like, whether it’s lower alcohol, sparkling, rye whiskey. The cocktails have a broad flavor spectrum. I didn’t really know it would be so huge for us, but it’s a key part of the menu now.
You were on a panel about modern classics at Tales of the Cocktail. During the seminar, both the Garibaldi and Vermouth Service at Dante came up as modern classics. How do you take established cocktails or drinks and make them your own?
With the Garibaldi, we were looking to have a signature drink or service at the bar. Campari and orange is a very simple drink that you can get in almost any bar, but the Garibaldi is an old drink that you don’t see in America very much. But we wanted to make it more than just Campari and orange, so we tested a whole bunch of different ways to make the juice. We settled on a high-speed juicer that anyone can buy… and it turned out juice with a silky, thick texture. We called it “fluffy” to make it marketable and it became a catch phrase. We use it for our pineapple juice, too. The intention was to center the bar around that one drink—it’s simple, elegant, low-alcohol and refreshing.
Vermouth… is underrated and a lot of people don’t understand or appreciate what it is, so we repackaged it in a way that’s exciting. We’re serving it in a frozen beautiful glass, and vermouth is made from grapes, so we’re serving it on frozen grapes, in part because ice would dilute it and the vermouth would become a watery mess. We add a little sparkling water to bring the proof down, and some lemon. These little things add to up making a simple drink more than the sum of its parts. The common service in Europe is just to pour vermouth on the rocks and serve it with a lemon wedge, but it wouldn’t have the same impact in America, since it looks like vodka on the rocks. Our presentation gets people talking and asking questions, and we also serve it on tap, which is another talking point.
What are some things you’d like to see more of on cocktail menus?
More low-alcohol drinks. It’s growing here, but if more places had dedicated low-alcohol sections on the menu, it would be huge progress. So many Americans come into Dante and say, ‘What’s the strongest drink?’ or ‘Can you make it stronger?’ That’s not the point.
What else do you have on your plate right now?
I’m thinking about the fall menu. The great thing about the menu is that we don’t change a lot of it. Our core drinks are so popular that it would be silly. Sales dip a little in the winter, so we try to fit in other things, but probably half the menu is the core menu. For the Pimm’s Cup, we take out Hendrick’s gin and add smoky Scotch for a more wintery feel. We use pomegranate seeds instead of watermelon radish in the garnish. Some ingredients may change a little bit, but the base drinks stay the same.
Dante opens at 8:30am during the week. How did you approach the menu with the early open times in mind?
Dante was more visualized as a place where people could come at 11am or 12pm and have a glass of wine. But you’ve been—the space lends itself to day drinking, and pretty much every drink on the menu is the perfect brunch cocktail. There’s no need to have a separate daytime menu. It was built around being light or sessionable, so you feel invigorated.
With bitters and sherry, it seems like the U.S. is just starting to catch onto the idea of low-proof drinks. Do you think the aperitivo will ever catch on here as in Europe?
Yes, I think so. I don’t think of this as a trend; I hate the word 'trend'. I think people will always drink and people love hanging out in bars, and the longer they can stay there, they will.