Clover Club and Flatiron Lounge Owner Julie Reiner: "There's No Faking It"
In this interview, Flatiron Lounge (37 West 19th Street, 212-727-7741) and Clover Club (210 Smith Street, Brooklyn, 718-855-7939) owner Julie Reiner reveals her go-to cocktail, predicts what we'll be drinking next, and weighs in on the bartender/mixologist debate.
You've played a big role in New York's cocktail resurgence. How did it take off?
At the time, the only other cocktail bar that was open, that really focused solely on cocktails and not food, was Milk & Honey -- and I think only a handful of people knew it existed. I had been bar managing at C3 in the West Village, which was connected to the Washington Square Hotel. I started doing seasonal menus and using more of a culinary approach to cocktails, and all of a sudden, I was on the front page of the food section in The New York Times -- multiple times. It seemed clear that writers wanted to write about quality cocktails, but back then, it was about cranberry juice on the gun -- no fresh juice was being used anywhere, other than The Rainbow Room with Dale [DeGroff]. It was difficult at that time to get a really great cocktail. I quickly realized that this was an untapped market in a city where everything has been done. So I started working on getting Flatiron Lounge open, and I started to take a look at classic cocktails that would use seasonal and fresh ingredients. Cabs were pulling up all night long. A lot of the people who came through my doors those early years have gone on to open their own bars. Now they're really pillars in the industry and people who have helped to push the cocktail movement forward.
What inspired your culinary approach to cocktails?
When I was working in San Francisco, fresh juice was the norm -- so when I moved to New York, I didn't really think I was doing anything out of the box. I was just expanding on what I had been doing in San Francisco, which was kind of ahead of New York at the time. Then I started talking to the chefs about flavor pairings, started to do infusions and use teas -- I tried to take it one step further. Also, growing up in Hawaii, fresh fruit and tropical flavors have always been at the forefront for me. I grew up with a mango tree in my backyard and a lychee tree in my front yard.
As you've seen, the cocktail industry has seriously taken off these past two decades. What does it say to you, as someone who helped to kick off the resurgence
It's a cool thing. At the time, I was just trying to entertain myself and give the people who came to my bar something really delicious in a glass -- so watching where it's gone has been just an amazing thing. I was lucky as far as being in the right place at the right time -- doing my thing and having Dale come in and meeting this handful of people who cared at the time. They all became these pioneers of the cocktail rebirth. There are so many people now who are involved in it, and it's an inspiring thing to see. At the same time, it was sort of that last element of culinary art that hadn't been revisited. There was amazing food and wine, but nobody was really focusing on cocktails.
What challenges or advantages have you faced as a woman in the industry?
That is sort of the question of my career. You know, it's funny because I've worked with a lot of women over the years, which may not be everybody else's norm. But for me, I opened Flatiron with four women and two men -- three of us women were the managing partners, so we ran the bar. It was a woman who owned C3, and in San Francisco, I learned to bartend at a place The Red Room that had all female bartenders. I teamed up with Audrey Saunders to open Pegu Club, then we opened Clover Club with Susan Fedroff, and now it's run by three women. My experience has always been very female heavy, actually. It is a very male-dominated industry at this point, but when I got into it, it wasn't really an industry yet. There was a handful of people, and it was like, Audrey, Dale, Tony [Abou-Ganim]. There were still more men than women, but there were so few of us in total, and it was a very encouraging environment. It was like, "oh -- you like cocktails? I like cocktails, too!" It wasn't competitive in the way it is now. I do my thing, and I don't really pay much attention to the fact that I'm a woman.