There’s a reason why the martini is the most fascinating cocktail on the planet — and a reason that it’s so often been bastardized into a completely new drink. The history of the martini is long and convoluted, and nowadays, you’ll most likely find that the word "martini" is proceeded or followed by a mixture of terms: chocolate, green apple, pumpkin … the list goes on and on.Perhaps the onslaught of insane martinis has pushed the classic martini recipes — the ones with vermouth, gin, and an olive — out and ushered in the age of brown spirits and cocktails. But when a martini is done right, it’s hard to beat.
Now, how a martini should be made is up for debate. History says to use gin (one of the first recipes, in 1895, calls for gin) but vodka, being the most-consumed spirit in the U.S., has eked its way into the martini glass. Gin versus vodka is such a hotly debated subject among our staff, our bartender friends, and drink makers that we simply can’t decide — one of each, perhaps? And then there’s the nitty-gritty of the choice of vermouth (and how much to add, making it a dry or wet martini), whether you like yours shaken versus stirred, with olives or citrus zest… You can make yourself dizzy trying to find the game-stopping, end-all, be-all martini recipe. (We’ll definitely be watching the outcome of Slate’s Martini Madness bracket — 80 recipes, only one winner.)
So it’s no easy task to narrow down a list of the bars and restaurants where you can find the best martinis in the U.S. You’re more likely to find a green apple martini than a classic gin martini at most bars and restaurants — but that shouldn’t stop you from looking. We searched high and low to find where you can order a classic (or close) martini, made with either gin or vodka, vermouth, and either citrus zest or an olive. No fuss, no add-ons — just a timeless martini that will take you back to the days of Don Draper and the 1950s and '60s. (Granted, this is a hard feat; even some of the bars on the list will serve you a sugary sweet Lemon Drop martini. But we can overlook a few perplexing martinis for one really great traditional version.) Then, we examined the bars themselves — which watering holes best lent themselves to the aura and mystery of a martini (and maybe a little James Bond, we admit). Some of the bars are political haunts, some of the bars are new and chic cocktail destinations, and some of the bars are solely dedicated to gin — major bonus points. So if you’re giving the martini a side-eye, sidle up to these bars and just try one. Love it or hate it, it’s an experience in itself.
1. The Peacock Alley at the Waldorf Astoria, New York City
It should be no surprise that this hotel lounge is the perfect setting for a martini: a luxurious, Art Deco space that brings you back to the days when martinis ruled the bars. And this is where you’ll find not only the Martinez (the martini’s drawn-out sibling), but the Platinum Martini, made with Double Cross vodka, Noilly Prat dry vermouth, and topped with a house-made artisanal blue cheese olive. You win, Peacock Alley. If you’re willing to spend $25 on one martini, it better be one that’s worth it — and the Peacock Alley makes it definitely worth it.
2. Gin Palace, New York City
If you’re a true believer in the gin-only martinis, the Gin Palace is where you need to go — you won’t find a flavored vodka martini anywhere. While the Gin Palace may be best known for its gin and tonic on tap, but we like that you can get a gin martini "your way," (classic, dry, or very dry) as well as the classic Martinez. What makes the Gin Palace the place for a martini is that you’ll get the historically correct martini in a modern, unstuffy atmosphere.
3. Big 4 Restaurant in The Huntington Hotel, San Francisco
Another hotel lobby restaurant for the power types in San Francisco, this is one place you won’t find a chocolate martini — and we love it. You can find the Bond version of the Martini, the Vesper (three parts Gordon’s Gin, one part Absolut Vodka, half measure Lillet Blanc, "shaken" with a lemon peel), as well a Junipero martini that brings out the florals and juniper of a true gin martini. If you need to feel powerful for a short time, Big 4 is the place to go.
4. The Starlight Room in the Sir Francis Drake Hotel, San Francisco
We can appreciate the sense of irony in The Starlight Room’s cocktail menu, a historical account of cocktail history. (Re: the 1980s cocktail portion, called "The Dark Times.") Which makes us appreciate the martini section of the menu that much more: a 50/50 martini of Bombay Sapphire gin and dry vermouth; a Margaurite martini with Plymouth gin, dry vermouth, and orange bitters; and a vodka martini with blanc vermouth. (Don’t worry, the Green Apple Martini is in the Dark Times section.) Sitting 21 stories high with views of the city, the San Francisco spot is known for its over-the-top decadence, so come ready for a night billed for the stars.
5. Nic’s Martini Lounge, Los Angeles
You should be forewarned if you are a gin martini purist: you will not want to go to Nic’s Martini Lounge in Los Angeles. Because Larry Nicola, the owner, is a vodka person (and the creator of the Vodbox, a vodka walk-in freezer in the restaurant). However, that doesn’t mean you won’t find a good, classic vodka martini on the topsy-turvy menu of martinis. The Nic’s Martini (presumably for Nicola) is a straight-up vodka martini with an olive, and then there’s a Maytag Repairman Martini with Chopin Potato vodka and a Maytag blue cheese olive. Sure, there may be a cheesy martini menu and well, a vodka freezer, but we appreciate the enthusiasm and unpretentious air there.
6. Columbia Room, Washington, D.C.
GQ called this bar as the place to have "the best Martini in America" — and we’d have to agree that it's up there. Mixologist Derek Brown is praised by just about everyone for how he mixes up a martini (he even measures the temperature, notes the Wall Street Journal, so that the drink is always served at 30 degrees). It’s the simplicity of the martini that sets up the Columbia Room as a cocktail bar to go down in history.
7. Hank’s Fine Steaks, Las Vegas
Another power-hour sort of hotel restaurant and bar that makes you want that three-martini lunch, or happy hour, or dinner. After all, live tunes from a piano and a killer happy hour? You’ll never say no to that Hank’s dirty martini (with the blue cheese-stuffed olive, of course).
8. Musso & Frank Grill, Los Angeles
If you want to feel like part of old Hollywood, Musso & Frank Grill is where to go. (No, really — this is where Hollywood execs would bring scripts to peruse over a martini.) Named one of the best bars by every men’s magazine ever, Musso & Frank Grill stands by the historical martini. The bartenders are known to even add vermouth to customers' drinks who say they hate the stuff. (After all, what’s a martini without vermouth?) And nothing says old Hollywood glamour like an old-timey martini.