Where Do You Escape For Pre-Dinner Cocktails?

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Here in 2012, cocktails are so omnipresent it’s almost impossible to imagine a restaurant meal without them. If you’re on a date, it might be tempting to have your cocktails and your dinner all at the same venue to save time and psychic energy deciding where to go. But that would be a mistake. Your date will only be enhanced by having your cocktail at a different venue: that way you double your conversation topics (the scenery, the waiter, the music, etc). So here are five cocktail joints that I highly recommend for your pre-dinner cocktails.

1. Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar (New Orleans, LA)

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At first glance, Lafitte’s may look less like a celebrated bar and more like someone’s house where locals are hanging out sipping Sazeracs. That’s precisely why it’s such a celebrated bar. The vibe is casual, the conversation vibrant. Go on a sunny afternoon, sit outside, and watch the passersby passing by. They’re certain to stimulate even more conversation. Tip: You have to order a Sazerac (made with Rye whiskey, absinthe or Herbsaint–an anise-flavor liqueur, like Pernod–and bitters) which is a strong drink, but all the better for your date.

2. The Library Bar (Los Angeles, CA)

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The remarkable thing about The Library Bar in the Roosevelt Hotel on L.A.’s Hollywood Blvd. is there isn’t a menu. Instead, the bartenders (or “mixologists,” as they’re called these days) quiz you about your preferences and shake up a drink based on what they’ll think you’ll like. When I went, they made me a drink with balsamic vinegar and strawberries (it’s the one on the right in the above photo). Naturally, this process makes for great conversation (“What’s in yours?” “Oooh, I like mine better”) plus the clubby atmosphere gives the place an exclusive vibe. Tip: If you want another pre-dinner cocktail, but crave a change of scenery, take a walk outside to the pool…there’s a bar out there surrounded by palm trees and fire pits that’s pure Los Angeles cool.

3. The Jane Hotel Bar (New York, NY)

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Tucked away in the Jane Hotel is a bar with an atmosphere that’s best likened to the living room of an eclectic millionaire’s mansion. It’s quirky, but expensive quirky. This hotel bar, which can get kind of douchey later at night, is best experienced in the pre-dinner hour when you can soak in its history. For example: the Titanic survivors were brought here upon arriving in New York (there’s some memorabilia from that behind the bar). Tip: if you’re having fun at the Jane and don’t want to leave, Cafe Gitane, which is right next door, has decent food and a quirky atmosphere all its own.

4. Krog Bar (Atlanta, GA)

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Another hidden away bar, this one in Atlanta, Georgia, Krog Bar was recommended to me by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution food critic, John Kessler. The vibe is industrial (it used to be a stove-making factory) but charming too, especially when the weather’s nice and you can sit outside. In addition to great drinks and wine, there are nibbles from celebrated chef Kevin Rathbun. Tip: if your date’s going well, take a drive through the Krog Street Tunnel…this graffitied landmark could be an ideal post-drink, pre-dinner make-out destination.

5. Bar Centrale (New York, NY)

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If there’s a theme here, it’s that my favorite bars are all hidden away. In terms of being “hidden away,” it gets no cooler than Bar Centrale which is in an unmarked building in New York’s theater district. You walk up a flight of stairs (to the left of the restaurant Joe Allen) and open the door and there you are. This place is best visited before or after a play, when you’re likely to see the Broadway stars who are in-the-know hanging out sipping cocktails (like the famous sidecar, pictured above). Tip: Reservations are recommended, even for drinks. The place gets busy.

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