You approach the red wooden door with, well, modest expectations. Somehow the name "Martini Grille" evokes cowboys frying up ground chuck, guzzling cold gin, and chewing on Grenadiers. And then there's the parking lot, flush with pickups and low riders.
But the inside defies expectations. No swinging doors or loose rafters. The walls are the color of deep red wine. And the aroma hints of Habanos, or at the very least, Dominicanos. Trying not to notice the leopard-skin drapes ("Belgian velvet," the owner says proudly), you scan the crowd.
Four thin twentysomething women adorn the bar, dressed as though for New York: short skirts and tights, pure polyester buttondowns. In the furthest corner, a middle-aged man leans over a small black table, whispering to a younger woman. Social circles dot the floor, some in jackets and ties nursing Montecristos, others in haute grunge flicking cigarettes.
Indeed, the Martini Grille has the feel of a real cigar bar. (Never mind the buffalo wings.) The bartender here makes a first-rate Martini. There's an extensive drink list with standards like the Manhattan and the Cosmopolitan, as well as original recipes like the Filthy, an opaque vodka Martini with olive juice and cocktail onions. Hey, somebody around here cares. Enter Scott P.L. Gardner.
"We stuff our own gorgonzola olives, our espresso is from Allegro in Colorado, and to furnish, we ordered everything from catalogs," says Gardner, who opened the lounge in December 1996. "Before this, there were absolutely no lush and seductive places for the cigar and Martini crowd."
It's true, says regular Andrew Westphal, a former New Yorker who lives just blocks from the bar in upscale Nob Hill. "When I moved here six years ago, Albuquerque was dead," he recalls. "Well, it's still dead. But there are a few good places now."
One caveat: Don't come to the Martini Grille without cigars. With a couple exceptions--the La Gloria Cubana Glorias Extra ($12) and a few Arturo Fuentes--the cigar menu reads like a "who's not" of the cigar industry. Smokes from little-known brands like Campeones and Espinosa sell for more than $10.
But given the alternatives to Gardner's lounge--there aren't any--you'd do well to forgive the spotty cigar selection. Bring your own, light up and enjoy the surroundings. Much the way the shallow Rio Grande seems tidal when draped across the desert floor, this bar is an oasis in New Mexico, a state as dry of cigar culture as it is of water.
The void isn't for lack of interest. By mid-1997, traffic at the Martini Grille had increased so dramatically that Gardner decided to increase the air filtering system sevenfold. Now, 200 to 300 patrons come through on a typical Saturday night.
"People in Albuquerque were starving for a stimulant," Gardner explains. "And there's still a huge demand for quality entertainment here. Another establishment like this one would only enhance the synergy. I wouldn't even look at it as competition. I would say, 'Alright!'"
4200 Central Ave SE
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Monday - Friday, 4 p.m. to 1:30 a.m.
Saturday, 5 p.m. to 1:30 a.m.
Sunday, 5 p.m. to 11:30 p.m.