Sam Ross

13 Sep. 2018
Better with no menu: Attaboy's way

When you look at the 2017 World’s 50 Best Bars list, especially its top ten, you’d think that you either need to be a luxury hotel bar, a very well funded stand alone business or a pro at playing the brand game. Attaboy (8th last year, 5th in 2016) tells a different story: “We don’t really fit in the list’s mould. We have zero PR budget and business stayed the same – we’re a small bar, 30 people when we’re at max, and were at max pretty much 7 night a week. I would lie, though, if I said we didn’t love being on that list”, co-owner Sam Ross told us.
Of course, the room that houses Attaboy has form: as most of our reader probably know, it’s where Sasha Petraske’s legendary Milk & Honey first opened, and Ross and partner Michael McIlroy were fixtures of that great bar team. “When Sasha had the opportunity to move Milk & Honey to a bigger venue, we’d been working that room for eight years. We had the idea of holding on to it and do something”, Sam says. Petraske was happy to let his ex-employees take over and turn it into their own bar. “It was an important room to us, to Sasha and to many people around the globe”.
Milk & Honey had opened its doors in 1999, but it was not until 2004 that Sam, originally from Melbourne, Australia, became aware of the bar. “I moved over to New York with a fairly good reputation. Melbourne was a forward-thinking cocktail market at the time, it was light-years ahead of the US bar scene, at least in terms of craft cocktails. It really was hard to find good cocktails in NYC back then”, Sam told us. After six months working here and there “trying to find a place I wanted to invest my time in”, a friend told him about Milk & Honey. “I had a drink and that was my moment: I need to work here.” He met Sasha a couple of days later and was swiftly hired. “I think he was attracted to the idea of a professional bartender, a figure that didn’t really exist in the US back then. Otherwise, I can’t explain why he hired me. I had a ridiculous haircut, I thought I knew it all and little did I know how little I knew…”
Milk & Honey (“the bar that’s been mimicked a thousand times”, in Sam’s words) was ground zero for the classics revival and the whole speakeasy thing. When Sam and McIlroy launched Attaboy they wanted something a bit more welcoming but respectful of the ethos that Petraske had instilled. One of the first decisions was not to work with menus – Milk & Honey never had. It’s a challenge, because you need to tailor your drinks for each customer but the size of the bar makes that approach possible: “The staff per customer ratio still allows us to give a personalized experience”.
This also impacts the style of drinks, with more reliance on common products and little homemade infusions or tinctures. “We have a very non-fussy approach. When I come up with drinks, my idea is that any bar anywhere could pick them up. We’re all about simplicity and that’s something Sasha taught us early on. We’re using quality ingredients, let’s just let them speak for themselves”. And although Attaboy is famous for a classic style of drinks making, not working with a meny means not offering the classics. “I wouldn’t suggest to make a classic Daiquiri for a guest, much like I wouldn’t make a Negroni for someone who wants something boozy, with gin. It’s the benchmark, that’s what they’ve had. We take that idea and expand on it. They come here to get something unique”.
That unique experience can be had every day of the week at Attaboy, but over the last couple of years, Sam and Michael have had a hand in the opening of a couple more bars. “We opened Attaboy with three other guys: Dan Greenbaum, Brandon Bramhall and Andrew Rice. We never really wanted to break that team down. When Dan came up with the idea for Diamond Reef, we assisted. And Brandon wanted to move to Nashville and came up with the idea of Attaboy Nashville. We only do this because they are part of the DNA of Attaboy. That’s how a business succeeds. You can’t start random venues and only be there every three months. People would see right through us”. Don’t expect a Attaboy franchise anytime soon. But if you have a drink at one of the three bars within the Attaboy galaxy, at some point in the evening, ask your bartender if he would make you a Daiquiri. It was one of Petraske’s favourite drink and its simplicity still resonates with Sam and his team: “There’s no need to overcomplicate life and, with its three ingredients, the Daiquiri is great example of that”.

François Monti