Naomi Levy runs the best bar in America. The best restaurant bar, that is — a title bestowed upon Eastern Standard at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail, "the world’s premier cocktail festival," held annually in New Orleans. The secret to Levy’s success is her steadfast devotion to hospitality and her aim to preserve the bar's rich history as she simultaneously pushes boundaries — resulting in creations like fruit ash and curry cocktails.
Running the Best American Restaurant Bar requires "embracing the culture that this restaurant has been built upon over the past ten years and keeping that thread while keeping the cocktail menu innovative and always moving," Levy explains. "It’s remembering that at the end of the day we’re all just here to create wonderful experiences," she adds. "Hospitality has become such a buzzword these days, but for lack of a better one, embracing hospitality not just as something that you do when you’re standing behind the bar but — it sounds so cult-y — as a way of life."
Eastern Standard, a Kenmore Square fixture for ten years, is one of Boston's oldest cocktail bars. While it easily could have become a bland watering hole for people en route to Fenway, it instead brims with warmth and authenticity — no small feat given the sprawling 3,200-square-foot space. In the same way that Eastern Standard offers a remarkably personal touch despite its enormity, Levy has taken a hefty bar menu and shaped it into something distinctive.
Like all excellent bartenders, Levy lends a certain finesse to her creations. Unlike some other bartenders, however, she doesn’t get bogged down in the technical. She lets instinct take over. As Levy explains, "Some people in this business get really into the science and even come from science backgrounds. I come from an art background, so I approach it more viscerally." Levy’s interests are colorful and varied, with a hint of the traditional. "There are things I’ve always gravitated to and have a strong passion for, like Scotch," she says. "I’m a sucker for a Speyside with some sherry impartation to it."
But just as Levy's cocktail menu is full of momentum, so is she. Levy embraces what's relevant at any particular moment. "I’m not big into astrology, but I am the most classic Gemini ever in that we can’t possibly be interested in one thing for a long period of time," she reveals — her love of Scotch notwithstanding. While in New Orleans, for example, she observed that "the garnish is back in a way that’s not just about the tiki-ism of it but elevating the drink in ways that made me remember garnishes can be fantastic when done right. It definitely made me want to up my garnish game." Another time, Levy had a vegetable salad with vegetable ash along the side. "It dawned on me: Why don’t we do this with fruit and put it on top of a cocktail, where your nose is right there and you get all of those aromatics and amazing visuals?" She did just that, adding The Phoenix — a mix of genever, burnt sugar, egg white, and lemon ash — to Eastern Standard’s cocktail lineup.
Levy draws inspiration from childhood memories and overseas trips — and especially from restaurants. One of Levy's greatest assets is her keen conceptual understanding of flavors, something she says she has honed while working as a vegetarian in the restaurant industry for 12 years. As she explains, "I’ve had to describe what things taste like without ever having tried them, so for me I can be at home thinking of a drink, come in and make it — and maybe make one or two tweaks — and actually be really happy with it." Levy's culinary-inspired approach stems from foods she enjoys eating. She cites as an example, "I thought to myself, curry is such a wonderful and complex flavor; why is it just in food? Let’s put it in a cocktail. The savory side of things is something I’ve been very interested in. It's my latest obsession."
What’s next for the manager of the Best American Restaurant Bar? Besides serving impeccable cocktails to happy guests, Levy has more flavors on her mind. "At Tales I went to this Nightjar pop-up — Nightjar is a London-based cocktail bar — and I had this amazing cocktail served in a seashell. It was really over the top, nothing that’s necessarily right for our program here, but it did have a plankton foam on it that was really good. So in my head I wanted to do a drink with foam on top of it. That’s kind of a dream I have. I haven’t figured out exactly how or where, but the last thing I had on my brain was that I was going to make a sesame cocktail, and we now have a sesame cocktail on the menu. When I have my mind set to something, it will happen. So look out for seaweed."