Cristian Preda, the head bartender at the Algonquin Hotel's Blue Bar, has one excellent rule for making cocktails: Never measure. A Romanian expat whose family fled Communism in 1980, Preda is exactly the kind of barman you hope to find in so fabled a haunt, one who diligently steers his customers to classics such as the Manhattan, the Aviation, or the Algonquin's own Matilda, named for the hotel's resident cat, which consists of vodka, champagne, a squeeze of orange juice, and a splash of Cointreau. As a rule, Preda's drinks are rarely more complicated than a generous pour of a base spirit, a muddle of fruit, and a hearty splash of bitters. "If you want a lollipop, go get a lollipop," he wisecracks. "The Algonquin is going to give you a quality cocktail."
Home of the legendary Round Table of Dorothy Parker fame, the Algonquin recently underwent a $20 million renovation, but the charm of its lobby and bar remains intact. Ray Charles's sultry version of Hoagy Carmichael's "Georgia on My Mind" played over the speakers one recent lunchtime as Preda mixed an Old Fashioned, a classic with as many bad variations as good. At the Algonquin, suffice to say, it's very good--and very simple. Taking a rocks glass, Preda likes to gently press down on orange slices and maraschino cherries (the fancy kind) before topping up with Booker's Bourbon and a few dashes of Dutch's Colonial Cocktail Bitters, then filling with ice. "It should taste as fresh when you finish as when you start," says Preda, who's usually at the Blue Bar. If you find yourself in his company, tell him what liquor you like and trust him to take it from there. For Preda, it's not about pretension. "When people call me a mixologist," he says, "I reply, 'Please, I'm an alcoholic bartender.' "