Denny’s—“America’s diner”—operates 1,700 restaurants, but beyond the oxygenated oasis of Las Vegas, only one of those outposts serves cocktails. A few weeks ago, the chain opened its first Manhattan location at the corner of Nassau and Spruce Streets, a site at once prominent and secreted—across from City Hall and hard by the approach to the Brooklyn Bridge, yet concealed behind the tuchus of Benjamin Franklin. With its drinks menu, the restaurant attaches an intriguing footnote to the story of booze in America.
Many press reports about this Denny’s have fixated on its signature stunt item, the Grand Cru Slam, and why not? The meal—breakfast for two and a bottle of Dom Perignon, yours for $300—captures the mood of New York’s defilement in one concise gesture, indicating both the apotheosis of late-phase nihilistic capitalism and the latest nadir of the city’s suburbanization. Meanwhile, other observers are delightedly shocked to see that Denny’s cocktail menu is largely legit. Here we have another sign—more striking yet than Applebee’s 2014 leap to interpret the 1990s’ interpretation of the 1850s—that fancy-ass drinking has gone thoroughly mainstream: The paradise of Portlandian mixology has torn into the strip-mall parking lot. I needed to see this for myself, so, one recent 5 p.m., I dragged out my favorite drinking buddy, and I do mean dragged, because I force him to hold my hand when crossing the street.
Yes, if we are properly to evaluate the drinks program of a family-style restaurant, we must strongly consider how it styles those drinks of which all members of a family who have been weaned may partake. In his three and three-quarters years, my buddy and I have developed a certain expertise in Shirley Temples. Veritable collectors, we have knocked them back in airport bars and hotel lounges, and at home we’ve hacked together ad hoc artisanal mixers with pomegranate juice and freshly diced ginger. We conduct an ongoing debate about how many cherries a Shirley Temple should be garnished with, disagreeing about the desirability of receiving a theoretically limitless number of them on the side.
We crossed the road like chickens, entered a handsome space staffed by extremely gracious servers, and we requested a seat at the bar. As a person who writes about liquid culture, I prefer to sit there: One picks up useful data from the bartenders and catches germs of ideas from the barflies. And as a parent, I prefer to seat my child on a stool, if possible, when out on the town: The distance between his feet and the floor provides an extra fraction of a second’s advantage in the event that he tries to make a break for it. But various state legislatures and corporate entities feel otherwise, and we were denied our perch. Instead, we settled at a table opposite the bar itself, in the bar area, beneath what magazines with fact-checkers report to be a pressed-copper ceiling. Our fellow patrons included many students from the school across the street, Pace University. I suspect that this Denny’s will serve the campus community well and often. Alas, its atypical closing hours—most Denny’s never close, this one shuts down no later than midnight—will deny many a collegian the archetypal Denny’s drinking experience, that of showing up drunk and oiling one’s body and mind with Moons Over My Hammy.
As I say, the menu is superfluously strong, loaded with unfussy interpretations of certified classics. But I found it necessary to risk what was, superficially, the worst drink on the menu—the Manhattan Cream Soda on Tap, a premixed compound of bourbon, vermouth, maple syrup, vanilla something, and acid phosphate. The Manhattan Cream Soda proved to be, very deeply, the worst drink on the menu. It soda-jerked to front of mind the vintage disdain of Bernard de Voto: “Whiskey and vermouth cannot meet as friends and the Manhattan is an offense against piety. … It signifies that the drinker, if male, has no spiritual dignity and would really prefer white mule; if female, a banana split.”
The child’s drink was significantly less sweet than mine, is what I’m saying. And, as Shirley Temples go, it was none too exalted. This Denny’s serves sodas from the digital fountain of a Coca-Cola Freestyle and prepares its Shirley Temples by adulterating Sprite with cherry syrup. This Shirley tap-danced to our table in a plastic cup replicating the kind of cupcake that tastes like plastic itself. My companion took in stride the fact that his drink had zero cherries in it, which made his sass about our seating all the more pungent. He said, “I like to sit at the bar. Are we at the bar? No.”