New York has more bars than it has stories, from the days of gin mills to our contemporary lounges, and anyone thirsty can shoot out their door and find a decent drink in less than a block.
With multitude, however, comes variety, and this city has too many styles of bars to name. Most new establishments launch themselves on a theme: renovated pub, neighborhood dive, sweetly perfumed harem, Irish-English-Scottish-U2, pseudo-violent-albeit fey, porn kingdom, television-mania, your parents’ basement circa 1975. Few bars last more than three years, finding survival difficult with so much competition in the city and so few pages in Time Out, but those that do survive are often swell. A local bar with a friendly owner makes the evenings more intimate and, often, less expensive.
But you say you want class…a new place to take your lady or gentleman, someplace where you can spend more money than you have, dress your best, and order cocktails that require bartenders with fifty years of experience? If you’re in New York there’s only one category you should keep in mind: The Old Hotel.
We selected four of the best old hotel bars in Manhattan and departed Brooklyn for a night of brighter lights—our expenses gold-stamped by the board of directors and our fiancées on our arms.
Bemelmans Bar, in The Carlyle
There is no bar in New York more romantic than Bemelmans. It’s demurely housed to the left of the Carlyle Hotel’s lobby on Madison at 76th Street. (Beware: Bemelmans is on the left, not the right, where the expensive Café Carlyle waits to take your money so you can watch Woody Allen toot on a clarinet once a week.)
The bar is named after former Carlyle resident Ludwig Bemelman, better known as the author and illustrator of Madeline. Bemelman himself painted the interior of the bar with murals that recall Madeline’s elegance and frivolity, and while the cuteness-factor may sound nauseating, it’s tempered by low lights, ‘My Daughter Went to Yale Too’ leather booths, and a menu that includes miniature cheeseburgers.
The room has the quiet confidence one might accord a particularly charming friend. Our plan for the evening was to order the same four drinks at each bar: a Manhattan (sweet), a Sidecar, a Margarita, and a Cosmopolitan. That, and also to take their complimentary matchbooks. Bemelmans spoiled us with four perfect cocktails: all were balanced, juicy, and spiked without odor. Even the snacks were distinctive, a silver lazy Susan filled with wasabi pees, sesame-covered cashews, and mixed nuts.
Behind the dark booths and baby-grand piano, the crowd at the bar was sparse, seemingly a mix of regulars and guests of the hotel, but not quiet: two men sat with their wives (or girlfriends, or lovers, or sisters, or prostitutes, one really isn’t sure in a hotel), talking over peanuts.
‘Are you going to see Paul McCartney?’ asked the gray-haired man.
‘Nah,’ said the other, a blonde, ‘Not until it’s his last tour.’ The first man grunted and played with his collar.
‘What about the Stones?’ he asked.
‘Nope. Same thing,’ the blonde answered.
The gray-haired man nodded and pitched a nut deep into his mouth. ‘Are you going to see Barbara Streisand?’ he asked, wearily.
The second man smiled and closed his eyes, shaking his head. ‘Nah. She’s finished.’
Our cocktails drained, and one spill later, we left to find a cab and a second drink. The tally, for Bemelmans, on a scale of one-to-ten for cocktails was:
Cost, drinks: $57.96
Cost, transportation (from Brooklyn): $16.00
The Oak Room, in The Plaza
To reach the Oak Room you have to follow one of two hallways from the main lobby of the Plaza Hotel. The walls, on the way, are lined with advertisements: posters and displays for china, watches, and crystal, ostensibly the goods one would buy on vacation were one paying to stay at the Plaza, a sour mark against the guests since the least-tasteless object for sale was a grapefruit-sized gold watch plated with diamonds. We feared the worst.
Our waiter showed us to what he called The Six-Million-Dollar Table. He smirked, and pulled back our chairs. ‘I had a guy here yesterday,’ he said, ‘He did a six-million-dollar deal at lunch.’
He grinned a second longer than comfort allows and left quickly with our order.
Our drinks arrived shortly after, along with a small bowl of trail mix. Despite the sumptuous paintings on the walls depicting gaslight New York in winter, the Oak Room and the few parts of the Plaza we saw are generations apart from Truman Capote’s glamorous Black & White Ball (though we’ve read the glamour was entirely due to the guests, and not the cheap décor). Unnerved, we lifted our drinks and toasted the Carlyle, a toast quickly ruined by some of the worst drinks in recent memory.
‘This can’t be a margarita.’
‘What would you call it?’
The group was finished five minutes after arriving; we left our drinks half-full (‘I’m not wasting my drunk on this Tropical Splash!’) and walked out past a young couple trying—amidst the glaring lights, loud conversation, and elbows-to-shoulders crowded room—to enjoy a romantic dinner of pasta and wine. Based on their attire (shorts and sandals), they were tourists who figured the Plaza would be a nice place to stay for an expensive, but memorable, weekend away.
We can all learn from their mistake.
Cost, drinks: $59.67
Cost, transportation (from the Carlyle): $6.00
The Oak Room, in The Algonquin
The Algonquin has a rich history that’s been squandered by peasants. The celebrated ‘Algonquin Round Table’ featured quotable drunks Robert Benchley (‘Why don’t you slip out of those wet clothes and into a dry martini?’) and Dorothy Parker (‘I like a good martini, one or two at the most. After one I’m under the table, after two, I’m under the host.’) and most likely an intern or two from the then-nearby New Yorker getting soused.
Nostalgia, especially based on anecdotes, can make history sweeter than it probably deserves. Under or over, naked or dry, we at least expected something fun from the Algonquin, especially after our expensive disappointment at the Plaza.
What we didn’t expect was a Detroit Ramada, complete with vinyl siding, NY1 sports on a suspended television, Jerry Garcia Band soundtrack (‘Dear Prudence,’ performed live!), and only one customer, a young foppish trust-funder in flip-flops eating a cheeseburger and bossing around a geriatric, kindly waiter.
To say the Algonquin is ‘run-down’ is like calling John Goodman ‘well-fed.’ Comments we made, albeit liquor-induced, included:
‘I’m going to drink this margarita, because it’s my job. I think it’s made with Nutrasweet.’
‘The cosmo is inconceivably worse than the one I just had. And it’s made with Nutrasweet.’
‘This sidecar’s made with Nutrasweet and it’s getting all over me.’
Don’t come here unless it’s raining, then leave anyway.
Cost, drinks: $52.76 (including $10.00 tip for the nice old waiter)
Cost, transportation (from the Plaza): $6.00
Serena, in The Chelsea
The Chelsea, on 23rd Street, is one of Manhattan’s more notorious hotels. Its former boarders include Mark Twain, O. Henry, Dylan Thomas, and Sid and Nancy, the former stabbing the latter in room 100 in 1978. More recently it has found itself in the limelight as the setting for Ethan Hawke’s directorial debut, Chelsea Walls, a film that is not doing very well.
The bar, unfortunately, is as notorious as a new Banana Republic, and largely calls the same crowd. Serena, as the bar’s named, is dressed like an opium den ordered out of a Pier One catalog, with lots of round pillows and red couches. Still, it was the most crowded of the bars we visited and, for the fifteen minutes we stayed, lively with a mix of fashionable electro and 80s rock.
Conclusion: A stylish bar that happens to have a hotel on top of it.
Cost, drinks: $41.00
Cost, transportation (from the Algonquin): $8.00
Cost, transportation (to Brooklyn, from the Chelsea): $13.00
There is no question, for any of us, that the Carlyle’s Bemelmans was the finest bar we visited that evening. For out-of-towners who desire a quiet, expensive, romantic hideaway after a long afternoon of museum-hopping, it’s the perfect choice. For New Yorkers, especially those in the dating market, there’s no better spot for a nightcap with a special someone. Someone who, upon absorbing the detailed, gentle surroundings will look at you and say (and we would agree), ‘This is a very special place.’