It’s easy to track the movement of a Dirty Shirley at a bar: Look for a tall glass of Sprite with a gradient of bright red grenadine and a maraschino cherry floating on top. The flavor profile — syrupy, verging on sickly sweet.
“It’s going to be a volcanic summer of Dirty Shirleys,” said Ashwin Deshmukh, a founder of Short Stories, a popular (and very pink) bar on the Bowery. He was calling from the SoHo bar, Fanelli Cafe, where the Dirty Shirley is his go-to drink. “My friends are sitting outside right now,” he said, “and I bet if I send them a round of Dirty Shirleys, the entire outside would start ordering them.”
The Shirley Temple, named after the child star (who denied involvement in its invention), has been a favorite drink order for kids since the 1930s. In the hands of adults, though, the concoctions are being made “dirty” with a shot of vodka.
The outdoor seating area at Fanelli Cafe provides one case study, but the drink’s popularity reaches far beyond the intersection of Prince and Mercer Streets. One Dirty Shirley demo on TikTok has 6.4 million views, and, in other videos, the drink has been memed, mocked, riffed on and, in one case, dubbed “the new espresso martini,” which was the summer drink of 2021.
Mr. Deshmukh, 37, said he has an “elaborate, psychographic theory” about the proliferation of the drink. At the beginning of the pandemic, he said, “millennials couldn’t deal with, like, two and a half days of bars being shut down in the city, and moved to all the suburban towns they’re from originally. I really believe it’s the drink of the summer in New York City because everyone’s back and they’re bringing their post-suburban ironic taste with them.”
One such person is Tiff Baira, 25, a TikTok influencer with 4.6 million cumulative likes on her New York nightlife and dating videos. Ms. Baira’s experience points to the ’burbs-to-Bushwick provenance of the drink. “A lot of us were put into these weird situations,” said Ms. Baira, who moved home to New Orleans for part of the pandemic, “where you’re an adult, but you’re forced to be a child again.”
Upon her return to New York, Ms. Baira was still craving the nostalgic treats of her childhood. She has recently ordered Dirty Shirleys at 169 Bar in Chinatown, Baby’s All Right in Williamsburg, Paul’s Baby Grand in TriBeCa and, most notably, at a friend’s birthday party at Olive Garden in Times Square. “It was Dirty Shirleys all around,” she said.
There’s been a notable influx of new restaurants in New York that evoke the feeling of chain restaurants and suburban living (even as creative new spots are opening in the actual suburbs). Plenty of coverage focuses on the dishes served at such places, like the blooming onions at Cozy Royale in Williamsburg and Patti Ann’s in Prospect Heights, and the mozzarella sticks at Bernie’s in Greenpoint.
For 20-somethings like Ms. Baira, the suburban chain restaurant aesthetic is evocative of the early 2000s, a period that is also being celebrated this year in fashion (a look colloquially known as “indie sleaze”). And just as the espresso martini rose in popularity last summer along with chokers, slip dresses and plaid, the Dirty Shirley echoes the Juicy Couture, hot pink, low-rise post-Y2K aesthetic. When you’re ordering one, Ms. Baira said, “you feel like Paris Hilton might get that.”
The Dirty Shirley’s saccharine nature is at odds with the colorless, low-cal drink orders dominating bar tabs today, which is why Carlos Quirarte, an owner of Ray’s on the Lower East Side, is excited to see the influx of requests. “There’s been this trend for so long of flavorless drinks,” he said. “I get tired of seeing everybody order vodka sodas.”
After two years of a pandemic, the Dirty Shirley gives drinkers the go-ahead to embrace the colorful and over-the-top. “The Dirty Shirley is like, ‘Let’s have fun!’ It’s about freedom, it’s about being a kid again,” said Ms. Baira, adding that it’s just what “we need this summer.”