I decided to take a trip to Painkiller, a new Tiki bar opening this weekend on Essex Street. The proprietors, Giuseppe Gonzalez and Richard Boccato, are seasoned experts in bartending, spirits, tiki culture, and making sure you have a good time. Giuseppe, a skilled veteran from Flat Iron Lounge, Clover Club, and Dutch Kills, and Richie, both tend the bar at Painkiller, making classic Tiki drinks such as daiquiris, swizzles, zombies, painkillers, mai tais, and more. Of course, you can stray from the menu (intuitive and well-designed) and order a Painkiller's Choice (leave it to the bartenders -- they'll take care of you).
I took the F train to Delancey-Essex Street in the Lower East Side, then walked a few blocks. It can be easy to miss the entrance since it doesn't say "Painkiller" anywhere. In fact, I almost did.
Once I walked in, I felt transported to a faraway land where all my pains could fade away with the sip of an ice-cold drink. I greeted Giuseppe and asked him to make me a "Giuseppe's Choice" aka Painkiller's Choice.
The first drink I had was the "Cradle of Life," a drink available on the menu. It contains white rum, spiced rum, angostura bitters, orgeat, lemon, lime, and orange juice and makes a fiery spectacle of itself as it is presented to you.
We're instructed to blow out the fire before drinking (a good idea for anyone with a hirsute face).
I decide to venture around and check out the whole area. The area around the front bar is narrow and crowded if you have to stand, but conducive to meeting new people since it's so tight. If you manage to snag a seat, you're hoisted four feet off the ground atop a soaring backless stool with an immense and deep bar in front of you. People to the left and right of you are buzzing with conversation, and Giuseppe and Richie are busily giving life to the spirits they mix. Since there are limited seats, it's general courtesy to offer the ladies a seat first (and please don't hog six seats if you come in a group of six -- get a table in the back).
If you can, try to get a table. You'll have to ask the hostess to put your name down. It's fairly busy but it's worth it if you are the mood for something more intimate.
The rear area is composed of several booths a la Dutch Kills (LIC, Queens), but unlike DK, it is adorned with a cross between New York hardcore punk and metalcore meets 1970 LES gangland graffiti and designs. It's a tiki experience unlike anything else before.
"Tiki bars usually look like a dive, a Disney ride or Grandpa’s basement. We’re going for something different,” says Richie Boccato. And they definitely got it.
Here we can see the Painkiller logo written in the same style as the NYHC logo, reminiscent of the hardcore scene.
It's similar to the logo on their website, which, as of the date of this posting, is simply that image and no more.
Other pictures of the rear: There are two large bathrooms, many booths of varying sizes, classic tiki decorations on the walls (which, along with the ceilings, are made from bamboo or some sort of Pacific island shoot), and graffiti reminding us that this isn't our grandfather's tiki bar.
A large painting of a busty lady contrasts with the patrons of the bar. We're not wearing leis (although I wouldn't mind one)!
Giuseppe Gonzalez, in a rare moment. I'm able to actually capture a photo of him before he moves again. In an effort to ensure quality, every drink that is served at Painkiller is made personally by Giuseppe and Richie themselves. Before they opened PK, G and R took a multi-city research tour to familiarize themselves with different renditions of classic drinks. They toured the bar scene of cities including London, Los Angeles, and Fort Lauderdale, among others.
Richie takes camp on the right side of the bar. You can also see their extremely powerful BlendTec blenders, used to make about half their drinks. If you had any doubts about the quality of their barware, check out this video.
The best thing about Painkiller is definitely the relaxing atmosphere. For example, most bars quickly dismiss patrons who attempt to stand at the bar. Painkiller is the kind of place where that is not only condoned but encouraged.
First drink? Check. Exploring the digs? Check. Meeting Giuseppe and Richie? Check. Now it was time to really delve into the drinks.
My next drink was a Missionary's Downfall, probably my favorite drink of the evening. It is made from mint leaves, rum, peach purée, lime juice, sugar, and pineapple, blended with crushed ice and served with a mint sprig and pineapple wedge.
Their glassware and mugware astounded me. It conveyed the comprehensive thoughtfulness of the owners and what they strove for the bar to be. Here we can see what I call the "Fu Manchu mug."
Our next round consisted of four different drinks, a feat not easily accomplished. For those of you whom have never worked in a bar before, making four extremely labor-intensive drinks and serving them all at once takes a lot of time (and good timing). I was pleasantly surprised when four different drinks served in four different accompanying glasses and mugs appeared before my party. I enjoyed this immensely because each member of our party took turns sipping each other's drinks.
The customers at Painkiller order from a menu that ranges from listing specific drinks (Cradle of Life, Mai Tai) to groups of drinks (swizzles, daiquiris) to the completely open-ended (Painkiller's Choice -- "Leave it up to the professionals"). If you order the latter, Giuseppe will make you a drink that comes directly from his encyclopedic brain, a mind containing thousands of drinks. So prepare to be surprised.
Painkiller also offers "Scorpion Bowls," communal bowls of drinks that are lit on fire and drunken with two-foot long straws. This is one example of the beautiful ceramic-ware.
I decided to try out a Scorpion Bowl, but I dared and shot for the stars.
Me: Giuseppe, I'd like to order a Scorpion Bowl for my party.
Me: Zombie scorpion bowl please.
Later, Giuseppe remarked that the particular Scorpion Bowl we had ordered contained SIXTEEN shots of rum, several of which were overproof.
Our Scorpion Bowl was served in a blue skull, smoke rising from the top from the glacial-coldness of the drink. The first sips of the zombie were cold like a bullet had pierced my heart (in a good way).
A group shot of our party:
As a parting gift, we received free shots of rum. A delightful and unexpected end to a great evening at Painkiller.
Painkiller, located at 49 Essex St. between Grand St. and Hester St.