Located in bustling Midtown Manhattan, Fine & Rare is exactly what it claims to be, a top-of-the-line bar that offers visitors delicious food and hard-to-find spirits, alongside some of New York’s best cocktails. If you’re looking to indulge in the middle of it all, this is the place to be.
We chatted with the Fine & Rare owner Tommy Tardie to get a sense of how the bar fits into the Midtown Manhattan landscape, what their particular approach to drinks is, and what to order the first time you enter the bar.
Spirited Zine: Just to start, can you tell us a bit about the history of the bar?
Tommy Tardie: Fine & Rare stands for Fine Food & Rare Spirits. In 2017, The Flatiron Room had been open for 5 years and we were consistently turning people away because we just didn’t have the space. It was a classic example of supply and demand. Having more demand than supply is a good problem to have, so I decided to open another restaurant that I could confidently send people to when we didn’t have availability at The Flatiron Room. I wanted it to be similar but different. Similar in that it would still be classic and upscale with attention to every detail, but different in that it would feature fine dining and more variance in the rare spirits (tequila, rum, gin etc., in addition to a healthy selection of whiskey). Believe it or not, we took over the restaurant space when it was what they call a “vanilla box” — White floors, ceilings, and walls. We built different levels and sections and brought in a ton of vintage decor that gives you the feeling that this place has been here since the 1940s. It’s easy to imagine the characters from Mad Men having some boozy lunches here.
SZ: How did you get your start in the drinks world and how did you end up here?
TT: I started my career on Madison Avenue, in Advertising. I was a Creative Director at some big agencies and loved thinking about marketing strategies for clients. From a young age, I had an entrepreneurial mindset and knew I wanted my own company but never pinpointed exactly what it would be. Although I had a bunch of businesses prior to The Flatiron Room, this was the first that really felt like “me”. It was a place I could feel comfortable and proud to call my own. When I get into something, I tend to go all-in. So, I did a lot of travel to American and Scottish distilleries, learning as much as I could, direct from the experts. The more I learned, the more whiskey we took into our inventory, and the more classes we started offering to our guests. It wasn’t long before we were on the map as one of the largest whiskey collections on the East Coast.
SZ: What makes NYers unique when it comes to how they interact with a bar?
TT: There are many different types of NYers, of course. There are some who are always looking for the latest and greatest “it” spot (until the next moment when a new spot takes the reign). There are others who value an established place that has been around for a while and reliably turns out great food and service (this is where we see ourselves, by the way). Regardless of which segment they fall in, NYers have an eye for detail. They may not know what’s “off” about a place, but if something is off, they can feel it. As an operator, it’s important for me to teach my team how to handle all the details so when someone walks into our restaurant, they get that feeling of “Wow”.
SZ: Fine & Rare is located in Midtown. How does Fine & Rare fit into the neighborhood’s modern ecosystem?
TT: Fine & Rare is located on 37th Street between Madison & 5th. We are walking distance from Grand Central Station and many corporate office buildings, but we’re also a part of the wonderful Murray Hill neighborhood. We’ve been told that we’re a welcome addition to the neighborhood from both the corporate side and the locals. There were a bunch of places to pick up fast-casual food around here, but there weren’t many fine dining options. The design feels like it could have been here all along — a real piece of Old-World New York City, off the famed Fifth Avenue. The tiled entrance extends to the outside and we have speakers there that give you a feel for the atmosphere inside before you even open the front door. Guests will pass many antique pieces here that hold such interesting history. For example, you’ll see original teller gates from Grand Central, doors and a chandelier from an old Masonic temple, the structure of an old country schoolhouse serving as a fireplace mantle. The wallpaper, lighting fixtures, paintings, decor all have a story.
SZ: Fine & Rare is known for its hundreds of rare spirits. What do you recommend for a first-time visitor?
TT: I recommend starting with a tasting flight. It’s the best way to discern multiple spirits to see what you like best. By tasting them side by side, you’ll get a better sense of what makes them different. It’s like going to a paint store looking for white paint, only to see there are over 100 options of white. When you hold them next to each other, only then do you see their differences.
SZ: What’s your favorite bottle on the menu?
TT: I get asked this question a lot. The truth is that I have more than one favorite. There’s so much that goes into what I feel like drinking at any given moment. The weather, my location, the situation. On a cold winter day, I appreciate some peat (a very smokey flavor, for those unfamiliar with the term). When I’m not in the mood for peat, I love a good sherried whiskey. In the summer, I tend to grab a bourbon. Regardless of how many whiskies I’ve tried (and I’ve tried A LOT), it’s still always fun to explore new whiskies. It’s hard to believe that with such a limited number of ingredients, the result can have so much variation. But it does, and it’s wonderful.
SZ: If you had to, how would you explain Fine & Rare’s philosophy when it comes to cocktails?
TT: Elevated Classics
SZ: When it comes to designing a cocktail menu for Fine & Rare, how do you approach creating something new while adhering to the bar’s ethos?
TT: Our bartenders are artists and masters at their craft. They don’t want to duplicate someone else’s work. Every cocktail goes through a rigorous process (and a final test by me) to make it on the menu. It must pass the test of how it reads on a menu, the quality of the ingredients, the visual appearance, and then, of course, how it tastes. As you’d expect at a whiskey bar, we have some classic cocktails such as an Old Fashioned and a Manhattan. Just like the overall vibe of our venue, we keep things classy — not ostentatious nor outrageous. The drinks use premium ingredients and always have an attention to every detail in the way it is presented.
SZ: Do you like to focus more on local ingredients and products or approach things from a more global view, bringing in flavors and products from all over? Why?
TT: A little bit of both. I’d say we have more of a global vision but use more local ingredients. The inspiration for the food comes from places that have inspired us.
SZ: Does sustainability have an impact on the way you approach creating cocktails? And how do you think sustainability will impact the trade moving forward?
TT: Sustainability is something we think about in all that we do, including cocktails. It’s something we consider when choosing ingredients as well as the way we present and serve a cocktail.
SZ: When you’re not working, what are you drinking?
TT: I love a dram (small pour) of whiskey at night but throughout the day, you’ll catch me drinking The Morning Dram coffee. It’s a coffee company that I launched in November 2021. Barrel-aged coffee made from exceptionally good coffee beans that have been aged in freshly emptied spirits barrels. There’s no alcohol in the coffee, nor any additives. It’s got all the delicious flavor notes that spirits drinkers love (We say it’s “coffee for the spirits drinker”). I love to savor a good quality cup of coffee in the morning even more than a dram of whiskey at night. That’s the reason behind naming the coffee “The Morning Dram”.