The award-winning Dead Rabbit is a cross between a New York cocktail joint and an Irish bar
"Dead Rabbit feels like a bar that gives you a hug," says bar manager Jillian Vose
What makes a bar – located at the lower edge of Manhattan and named after a notorious 19th-century gang of Irish-Americans who roamed the nearby streets – worthy of being named the best in the world?
Turns out, it takes more than just well-crafted cocktails, the right music and a good vibe.
In fact, the years before Dead Rabbit opened were pretty painful for the operating partners, Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry, who worked on the initial plan from their home base of Belfast in Northern Ireland, agonizing over details and sleeping very little.
Recently, they topped the list at #1 on The World’s 50 Best Bars 2016.
“What kept us going was our mission statement to bring the Irish bar into the 21st century,” McGarry says. “One of our goals was to have the world’s best bar recognized as [being] an Irish bar.”
He adds, modestly: “It’s our version of the world’s best bar. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
The Dead Rabbit Grocery and Grog (30 Water Street, New York; +1 646 422 7906), a New York cocktail bar meets Irish pub, is a celebration of what was going down in lower Manhattan before it became the Financial District, long before Wall Street was filled with traders.
It’s what became of Muldoon and McGarry’s vision to legitimize the Irish pub.
McGarry calls Dead Rabbit a “multi-experiential experience,” and he’s right.
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The tri-level bar features a tap room (with a comfortable Irish pub feel and sizable whiskey list) on the ground floor, and a parlor serving cocktails on the second. The top level is used for private events.
The feeling is the same up and down: easy, inviting and non-pretentious – which isn’t always easy to pull off, especially when drinks cost upwards of $16 a pop.
The cocktails, like the staff, are serious – but served with a wink.
Not literally, of course, but the playful drink names (Mafioso, Son of a Gun, Femme Fatale) are revealed in the pages of a menu that’s part food and drink list, part graphic novel (and available for purchase at $6).
A rotating but hefty selection of cocktails is listed alongside the illustrated tale of the Dead Rabbit gang, lead by John Morrissey. It’s like a boozy history lesson – and tourists and locals alike appear to eat it up.
Awards are casually littered on the shelves behind the bartenders who shake and stir to a classic rock soundtrack.
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People may know about the accolades, and be drawn in by the hype, but they’re staying for the fun.
Other acclaimed bars are known for their crazy garnishes. Some focus on Tiki drinks, some serve cocktails at a high volume. What is it that sets Dead Rabbit apart?
Bar manager Jillian Vose, who joined the Dead Rabbit team about a year into their opening, was in London for the recent World’s Best awards and visited a few other bars that also made the cut.
“I think the difference is that it’s not just one thing,” she says. “The Dead Rabbit feels like a bar that gives you a hug; it’s cozy, you feel comfortable there.
“The music’s right, the lighting’s right, the staff are friendly. You’re not waiting forever for a drink… all of those things come together to make a special bar.”
Adding to that formula is undoubtedly the location, which pairs so well with the theme of the bar and the graphic novel-style menu.
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Sense of place
Which begs the question, could Dead Rabbit be Dead Rabbit if it were located somewhere else?
“I think the reason why it works is because of where it is,” Vose says. “Because of the location and what went on there in the time the bar was set in. It wouldn’t be the same anywhere else.”
It took six years for the bar to open, it’s been around for nearly four, and since then Dead Rabbit has picked up a slew of other awards, including at Tales of the Cocktail where they took home World’s Best Cocktail Menu, Best American Cocktail Bar and International Bartender of the Year award (given to McGarry).
The World’s Best award is another jewel in their crown, albeit a shiny one.
“For us, it definitely it brings a sense of completion – but I don’t want you to think we’re done,” McGarry says. “The way we operate is: We want to improve every single day. We’re aggressively trying to improve things; we’re constantly working on maintenance issues.
“It’s very much a job completed … but the way we look at these things is, our arrival point is very much our next destination point.”
McGarry notes that expectation levels rise with each accolade. “It’s not easy to get here, but it’s a hell of a lot easier winning an award than keeping them, you know?”
Vose agrees. “It’s more terrifying!” she says of life after being named the best in the world.
“We won this award that we wanted for so long, [but] now there’s more eyes on you, more expectations, people are coming for you.”
Still, Vose sees the positive side of winning: “That’s what’s great about awards; they push people to become better.”
The pressure to succeed isn’t lost on McGarry, nor is he resting on his laurels.
“People are coming into this bar and are expecting the world’s best so seeing dust or chewing gum under a seat… there are so many things to keep an eye on.
“You’re constantly looking at things through a lens of ‘If I were a guest coming into the world’s best bar, what would I expect?’
“When you’re constantly asking yourself those questions, constantly trying to tweak things and improve things, I don’t know if we’ll ever get to the point where we’re happy.”
“It means an awful lot, but we’re not getting carried away,” he says with a laugh.
Cindy Augustine is a lifestyle writer and editor living in downtown New York City. She will travel to the ends of the Earth for a great meal, especially if it involves pizza. See her pictures on Instagram and follow her on Twitter.