When I Quit Drinking, Shirley Temples Made Going Out Fun Again

In Underrated we review the ordinary rituals we build around food. Next up: drinking a Shirley Temple.

You probably last drank a Shirley Temple at your third-grade classmate’s laser tag birthday party with a slice of bad pizza on a plastic Toy Story-branded tablecloth. Or maybe you had it “dirty” with a shot of vodka back in 2022, when everyone from the New York Times to Business Insider named it the drink of the summer. That’s when I began drinking them again myself—strictly the G-rated kind with grenadine, Sprite, and a maraschino cherry. The year 2022 also happened to be when I quit drinking and abdicated all claims to future Drinks of the Summer. I’m pleased to report that the kid-friendly version still gives you all the same feelings from the last time you had one: excitement, pleasure, and the optimism of a person who didn’t yet know back pain.

When I quit drinking, I had no idea what to do with myself in restaurants, where my sobriety stuck in my throat every time I was asked for my drink order. I was possessed, routinely, by the urge to apologize to my server for making them bring me some boring crap we both knew I didn’t want. Many menus did have a “mocktails” section, to be fair, with some tempting offerings. But, living in New York, I was insulted by the idea of paying craft cocktail prices for something that would by definition fail to get me drunk.

Then I found myself heading to a party hosted by the intimidatingly cool newsletter Dirt, where there would be an open bar. I dreaded the prospect of spending the evening schlepping around my usual pint glass full of soda with bitters, a grim and unwieldy cocktail that might as well be called The Ugh. But instead, when I arrived, I saw her winking at me from the cocktail menu across the room—in oh-so-trendy “dirty” form, true, but it was still like going to a party where you think you won’t know anybody and then seeing an old friend unexpectedly. I beelined for her, my heart pounding.

“Hi there,” I said to the bartender, my eyes still glued to the menu as if I thought she might disappear from it any second. “Could I have a Shirley Temple?”

“One Dirty Shirley coming right up,” he said.

NO,” I said casually. I would be forced to make this distinction regularly during the Summer of the Dirty Shirley, and never managed to do so with any grace. “Uh. Sorry. Just a regular Shirley, please.”

But the drink he served me didn’t look like “just a regular” anything. The Shirley Temple came in a highball glass topped with a skewer of three velvety Luxardo cherries. What had I done to deserve such opulence? A half-inch of neon pink grenadine climbed up the bottom of the glass, the pale Sprite burbling away like witch’s brew. It didn’t look like one of my sorry soda and bitters, that’s for sure. It didn’t even look like a cocktail. It just looked perfectly, unmistakably like a Shirley Temple. And it tasted third-grade-birthday-party delicious, its saccharine fruitiness tempting me with a good old-fashioned sugar rush.