The Watering Hole: Vito's, 927 Ninth Ave., 397-4053, FIRST HILL
The Atmosphere: "The Sopranos crash the set of Swingers" would be the easy shorthand, given Vito's original incarnation as a gangster haunt in the early '50s and its 2010 resurrection as a cool-kids' cocktail lounge. However, the precisely calibrated balance between old and new struck by current owners Greg Lundgren and Jeff Scott (co-proprietors of The Hideout, located just around the corner) saves Vito's from losing its sense of history (wood paneling and a saucy Sicilian menu remain), while improving upon what wasn't working (the dance floor has been repurposed as a home for a grand piano). Tattooed 20-something lovebirds now canoodle over Vito's legendary cannelloni, but lifelong regulars keep their space at the bar with deserved dignity.
The Barkeep: A smoldering brunette brandishing fresh-faced beauty and an unaffected, engaging demeanor that suits Vito's perfectly, Kristen Naranjo is a veteran of the Seattle bar business. She accumulated serious trench time slinging tequila and Tecate at the Cha Cha (both new and old locales) and shouting over crowds swarming the bar at Neumos, but then moved away from high volume—literally and figuratively—and began working for Lundgren and Scott. After four years of tending bar at The Hideout, she started managing her bosses' whole operation; her duties now include supervising the bar at Vito's, hiring several new staff members, and revamping the cocktail menu.
The Drink: The Tom Handy. "It's a take on the Sazerac," explains Naranjo, deftly rinsing a chilled double rocks glass with absinthe before swirling a long-handled spoon around rough-cut ice cubes and two parts rye whiskey, one part cognac, a whisper of simple syrup, and a brisk sprinkling of Creole bitters. "It's a really simple preparation and a totally stunning cocktail," she continues, confidently placing the finished product in front of me with a generous swath of lemon peel kissing the frosty glass rim.
The Verdict: The wheel has not been reinvented, and that's a good thing. This is the perfect whiskey cocktail to usher in fall's chill. It warms initially via the obvious effects of cognac, but then unexpectedly refreshes, thanks to the beautiful harmony of dry rye and the slight anise flavor that comes through the absinthe.