The New York Times' restaurant critic raises the bar for cocktails with a new history of the classic American drinks

At cocktail hour, Manhattan’s King Cole Bar roars with the aggressive merriment of people sipping $15 drinks. One evening in November finds William Grimes—author of the newly expanded Straight Up or on the Rocks: The Story of the American Cocktail (North Point, $20)—sitting in its posh dimness, a silver snack dish and a fizzy brown drink before him. He is slim, bespectacled, bouncy.

”I ordered an Americano because I have to eat tonight,” the 51-year-old says. An Americano consists of sweet vermouth, Campari, club soda, and a twist; Grimes, as the New York Times restaurant critic, ”eats” most nights. ”It really perks up the appetite. This is the first cocktail that made me realize that cocktails were serious. I was in graduate school at the University of Chicago. This professor threw a party, and before dinner he served Americanos. It opened my eyes to this other category of pleasure.”

Behind the bar at the King Cole is a mural of its namesake, a painting of the nursery rhyme royal. ”That hung at the Knickerbocker Hotel, built in 1902, I think. There was a bartender there who had the name Martini and who tried to grab credit for creating the drink. Usually, when people try to claim they invented a cocktail, they didn’t. The martini was popular by the 1880s.” Such is the erudition of a man who, in 1993, first published this consideration of taverns, saloons, and speakeasies. Now, he’s tied up loose ends and addressed recent developments. The ascendance of the Cosmopolitan, for example: ”It’s the dumb fad drink that just won’t die.”

Does the food writer have a favorite bar snack? ”I like these,” he says, plucking a pea from the dish. ”This is a dry-roasted pea with a little wasabi coating on it. Which sounds very precious, but it’s got this little hot zing.” He chews thoughtfully. ”Any of the better nuts are good. Cashews being sort of a B+. Macadamia being an A or A+. Almond being a B. Hazelnut being a B also. Little pretzel sticks, I suppose, are better than nothing.”