There is, at first glance, just a short line to access Broken Shaker, Gabriel Orta and Elad Zvi’s rooftop bar at the Freehand Hotel on Lexington. You wait with a group of quiet, texting, linen-wearing aspirants, and in no time at all, you’re standing by the neon-lit entrance.
And then you’re whisked to another line, far from the entrance. This is what we call a “false summit” in the mountain climbing community. After the second line terminates, a doorman shuffles you into a hallway, after which you’re asked to wait single file, against the wall, for the elevator. This is the third line. You ascend. And then you encounter the fourth and shortest line by the host stand, where you put your name down for a table, ask for a wait time (“we don’t give out wait times”), and then go to the bar, where you might stand in a fifth line (more of a freeform crowd than an actual queue) for a $16 cocktail known as the poppyseed bagel fizz.
You take a sip of the frothy highball, a blend of gin, aquavit, Blackseed bagel kvas’, poppy seeds, lemon soda, and powdered cream cheese. It tastes mostly like the last two ingredients (so, creamy Sprite). You watch the sunset over the Art Deco Met Life Tower and inhale the fumes of the guy vaping marijuana next to you. Life is good.
Then you wait in line for the bathroom. The sixth line.
“In other eras and societies — the Great Depression, the Soviet Union — long lines signify scarcity or oppression,” New York Times film critic A.O. Scott wrote in 2015. But: “In the Bizarro World that is 21st-century America, it’s the opposite: Long lines are signs of abundance and hedonism.” he added. It isn’t hard to think of properly obnoxious examples: Disney World, the Cronut place, and the folks performatively queuing up before a Broadway show even though they have $500 assigned seating.
But the summertime line for a New York rooftop bar manifests a very particular brand of metropolitan-area absurdity. The city has no shortage of air-conditioned cocktail dens that will more efficiently protect you from an errant lightning strike. And yet if you spend any time on Tinder (barf), literally every third pic is of someone posing on 230 Fifth as if it were Machu Picchu. It is the Tao of rooftop bars, by which I mean your out-of-town friends will force you to take them there and before you know it you’ll be part of someone else’s online dating profile.
My advice: If you have to go to a rooftop bar, Broken Shaker is probably the one. Probably. The line system might be sisyphean, but at least the smart crowd control means the population density is far from night club levels. And once you sit down in a Roman & Williams chair that likely cost more than your monthly rent, overlooking One World Trade (or Baruch College), listening to reggae beats, nibbling on the togarashi beef jerky (as thin as prosciutto, as spicy as a Slim Jim), things feel pretty great. It will still take you, like, 10 to 15 minutes to get a drink via wait service, but it will be a well-composed drink, perhaps a Rye Thai, a riff on the tiki classic that tastes like a banana smoothie, or a caipirinha jam-packed with preserved and sweetened limes.
Orta and Zvi have a promising work in progress on their hands, and chef Jimmy Lebron from Freehand Miami created respectable enough small plates with Caribbean and Middle Eastern overtones. The burger is a smart way to slow the infusion of alcohol into your bloodstream, that is if you can manage to get more than one drink per hour. It’s a loose grind of nicely charred beef topped with sweet-smoky chorizo jam and swiss. It comes with a crappy pile of yucca fries.
The chicken schnitzel sandwich is decent too, packing more crunch than poultry flavor, which is about what expects from this preparation. It arrives with a refreshing pile of, lol, “Arabic slaw.” (Just so we’re clear: Arabic is a language, not a culinary adjective).
Malawach, the flaky Yemeni-Jewish fry bread, is a lovely conduit mechanism for a variety of dips: matbucha (tomato stew), tahini and chermoula, and spinach and artichoke labneh. It’s also a damn expensive bread course at $18. Arepas, in turn, come packed with the intense flavor of corn and a layer of salty halloumi. That Latin American dish runs $14, a few more bucks than what one might typically pay at lower elevations.
A rooftop markup is fair enough. What sits less well is the $16 blend of Grey Goose vodka, Bombay gin, curried honey, and pineapple. It’s called “Curry in a Hurry,” a hat tip to the 40-year-old South Asian spot nearby. But maybe a $16 cocktail isn’t the best tribute to a neighborhood institution that sells entire meals for $13 — just a thought!
Then again, you could overlook a lot of things, the cigarette smoke included, while high in the sky after a few drinks. And in this light, it’s worth reconsidering that A.O. Scott meditation on lines. The (downstairs) queue for Broken Shaker might be one of hedonism, but it’s one of scarcity, too. Manhattan often looks its best from its parks, from its bridges, from Brooklyn, and from above. Problem is, most folks don’t have access to the “above” part of the equation. And when I say access I mean to the tens of millions of dollars it takes to exist in an apartment that gives its owners the perpetual impression of hovering above the city in a helicopter.
This is partly why tourists like to spend big bucks to ascend to the top of 30 Rock or other observation decks. And this is why even New Yorkers like myself are not immune to the draw of rooftop bars, if only to get a momentary peek at the city’s vertical luminescence. Broken Shaker, its flaws notwithstanding, is among the more enjoyable ways to accomplish this. I guess.