Take a stroll down 9th Avenue this weekend, where a brand new cocktail lounge from the team at Lilly’s Craft and Kitchen awaits. Hell’s Kitchen newcomer The Molly Pitcher Club, adjacent to Lilly’s, promises bespoke, intricate “spirits and concoctions” in an intimate, speakeasy setting — perfect for a New York date night with someone you actually like.
The team behind Molly’s — partner Jacob Rotundo and beverage program director Christopher Lockwood — talked to us about the long road to opening the Hell’s Kitchen bar, originally acquired in 2019.
Rotundo came to restaurant operations after a lengthy career in music and bartending. “I bartended for a long time, I was a musician by trade for a long time. You know how it goes, every artist has some sort of bartending or serving job,” he said. After working at bars all over the city, Rotundo decided to save up for the chance to invest in a personal project. “I put a couple of dollars away and decided if I was going to invest, I wanted to invest in the things I already did, which was music and bars. I figured bars would make more money!” he laughed.
“I just happened to meet the right people at the right time, Ty in particular [Rotundo’s co-partner at Lilly’s and Molly’s]. He brought me in as a partner on a few different places, and this is our latest one.” Together, the pair has successfully operated bars throughout the Tri-State area, including Lilly’s Craft and Kitchen in Hell’s Kitchen and Lilly’s Cocktail and Wine on the Upper West Side, Monk McGinn’s in TriBeCa, and a Lilly’s location in Long Beach, Long Island. While each bar has a different feel and menu specialties, all are known for combining New American fare and thoughtful, creative cocktails, as well as a plentiful selection of wine and beer in a lively, amiable setting.
The chance to design a new cocktail menu was a major draw for beverage director Lockwood, who also came up through New York’s bartending ranks before joining the team at Molly’s: “I cut my teeth at a place called Clarkson in the West Village.” He went on to work the bar at Pretty Ricky’s on the Lower East Side and the now-shuttered Polynesian in Hell’s Kitchen before becoming head bartender at Japanese restaurant Juku in Chinatown. “I’ve been around the block a bit, and I’d been waiting a while to get a program of my own. This was an opportunity to do so in a neighborhood that I’ve worked in before and realized needed a proper cocktail bar,” said Lockwood.
When it came time to choose a name and brand for the bar, Rotundo and his partners came up with a multi-layered historical reference point. Molly Pitcher Club is, in part, a tribute to the Revolutionary War-era figure (identified by historians as potentially a woman named Mary Hays but perhaps an amalgamation of several people) who, while bringing pitchers of water to soldiers in the 1778 Battle of Monmouth, found her artilleryman husband William Hays had collapsed in battle. She took his place at the cannon, at one point narrowly avoiding a cannonball that ripped her skirt and remarking something to the effect of, “well, that could have been worse,” before returning to her post.
The second layer of the bar’s nomenclature is a tribute to the Prohibition-era New York women’s organization created to advocate for the end of the Temperance movement (also named after Molly Pitcher/Mary Hays).
“When the anti-Prohibition push started to happen, there were people forming groups and proper organizations to fight and lobby the government to overturn the laws,” said Rotundo. “Quite a few were female driven and female organized, and one New York-based group was looking for a strong, independent female figure to name themselves after. One of the founding members knew about Molly Pitcher. We learned these stories and knew it would fit our Prohibition era, speakeasy-type, vibe.”
Befitting the Prohibition era name, the space is filled with photos of speakeasies and Prohibition memorabilia, even including a few of Rotundo’s family photos in the mix.
He hopes that in addition to adding a modern-day speakeasy to the neighborhood, Molly’s fills a space for a stylish, well-loved cocktail bar in Hell’s Kitchen. “It seems like everything’s represented around here in the neighborhood, but we wanted to create the feeling of a cozy little cocktail lounge, and to try something different. This is the first of our higher-end cocktail places. We wanted to try something new, and we’ll see what happens,” said Rotundo.
Adds Lockwood of the team assembled at Molly’s, “We’ve been working on this for about a year now, and I think we’ve made some significant strides. I have a wonderful team of bartenders, one server, and a fantastic bar back.” He’s equally proud of the burgeoning cocktail menu, hoping that it will “challenge the palates” of neighborhood patrons.
Speaking further of the beverage program, Lockwood noted that “it’s a little bit of everything. I like to approach things from a more culinary standpoint — I’ve spent my time in the kitchen of a handful of different places and I like to utilize that information and that knowledge to do something different and progressive. Our menu is a combination of more standardized fare with more esoteric ingredients.”
A thoughtful combination of classic and esoteric ingredients is indeed present on Molly’s menu, including flavors like black garlic and ube, the unique rum blend, soursop, coconut, orgeat and citrus profile of the “Shark Week” (ordered by many of the patrons at the bar’s soft-opening event), and the top-notch Martini, composed of a two-gin combination (botanical and dry), umami bitters, yuzu, a sake-based Bermutto vermouth, and topped with a caper berry for extra brine. “This neighborhood really deserves a good martini,” said Lockwood of the creation.
After an unquestioningly difficult pandemic pause, the two look forward to putting new roots in the neighborhood. Lockwood spent some of the down time working for an importer/exporter, making pre-batched cocktails, and working on his own documentary film and musical projects, as Rotundo worked through the challenges of allocating PPP loans to keep his other locations up and running — adding that Lilly’s on 9th was one of the first restaurants to adopt now-ubiquitous outdoor dining shed model.
Rotundo is bolstered by the support of fellow 9th Ave restaurant owners, noting that “we feed off of each other” to work through the brave new city restaurant landscape. He hopes to grow a regular crowd at Molly’s that will stop in for a drink before dinner at Lilly’s, or vice-versa. The space at Molly’s, currently only open evenings, will also be used as additional brunch seating for Lilly’s customers, making it extremely easy to transition from a late-afternoon eggs benedict to a happy hour martini. “We want people to come here for a nice cocktail and a dinner and then go party afterwards,” said Rotundo.
On launching a new bar in Hell’s Kitchen, Rotundo reflected: “ There are lots and lots of restaurants around here — it’s definitely a hospitality-oriented neighborhood. But for a long time, I wouldn’t say it was really a destination. It was more of a very niche, insular community over here,” said Rotundo, who himself lives on W43rd Street and 11th Avenue. “I think the area has changed recently. I think it’s becoming more of a destination. It’s still a little more gritty and grimy and grungy than, say, the West Village, it’s still got a bit of grit to it and I think that does sort of scare off some people, but it’s definitely becoming more of a destination.”
The Molly Pitcher Club is open evenings from 5pm at 675 9th Avenue between W46/47th Streets.