A Dash of Class with The Bitters
The hotel bars of New York offer a refuge from the strains of the world. Our Big Apple barfly gets behind the scenes
Article by Aaron Shuttleworth
A man sidles up to a marble topped bar. He has his best suit on and his shirt is pressed, his shoes shined.
‘A 2:1 martini please…orange bitters and a twist’. The bartender doesn’t ask if he want’s vodka. Fleming messed that bit up. No man this sharp would ever drink vodka. Out of the corner of his eye there’s a barely perceptible flick of the wrist.
‘Make it two’.
He turns. It’s a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop put his foot through a stained glass window.*
The Hotel bar is an entity entirely unto itself. It is a place of intrigue and mystery, of a different type of class. As the two epicentres of the Western world, London and New York have long been a home away from home for globetrotters and parched travellers. Long before the speakeasies and new concept bars of today, hotel bars were the pinnacles of a city’s nightlife. They were a meeting place, a sanctuary, at once the centre of the city and the last refuge from it. Naturally they attracted the best barmen of the day. If you look to any classic cocktail book written pre-1940, chances are the author was at the helm of somewhere like The Savoy or The Waldorf Astoria.
Whilst their counterparts in London evolved over time and managed to stay increasingly relevant to the point of having three major hotel bars inside the worlds top 10 (The Connaught, The American Bar at The Savoy, and The Artesian Bar at The Langham Hotel), their New York counterparts wrapped themselves in their cloaks of old world luxury and remained set in their ways. When Milk And Honey opened in a shoebox-sized room on the Lower East Side in 2000 it sparked something far greater than a young Sasha Petraske, or anyone else, could have imagined. Here was the revolution, the renaissance hinted at by Dale DeGroff when he shook things up at The Rainbow Room in the late 1980s. Bars such as Pegu Club and Flatiron Lounge led the charge downtown where a younger crowd naturally gravitated due to more affordable housing and the allure of something different. Meanwhile the grand hotel bars kept on doing the same thing they had been for the last 100 years and pulled that cloak ever tighter.
Or did they? When I visited Frank Caiafa, beverage manager at The Waldorf Astoria’s Peacock Alley he was quick to point out that The Waldorf was the first major hotel bar in the city to implement a fresh juice program in the mid 2000’s, long before anyone else was doing it. Their cocktail list is also refined and elegant, utilising new techniques such as barrel ageing to bring classics into the 21st Century. Frank is the kind of man you sit down with for five minutes and leave five hours later richer for the experience. He’s from the old school of bartending, where hospitality was more about who served you the drink than what was in your glass. This is something he believes still lets the old guard retain their grandeur and why they keep attracting crowds. The skillset taught today is so focused on technique, ingredients and the next big thing, that the art of hospitality is often overlooked. He regales me with one story of a bartender at a famed hotel bar who has been there for over 30 years and still makes his Manhattans with five ounces of rye. Tell that to one of the cocktail connoisseurs of today and you’ll be met with a facial expression usually reserved for genocide. Whilst your odd red nosed alcoholic might beam with glee at this, the point Caiafa is trying to make is clear; many of these bars have a clientele who are coming back for an experience, not just a drink.
This is nowhere more telling than at Bemelmans Bar at The Carlyle hotel on the Upper East Side. The Carlyle serves as both a luxury hotel and offers permanent residences for those existing in the highest echelons of society. Bemelmans plays host to these residents on a daily basis and as a result has long standing relationships with not just these guests, but also their friends and family. For bar manager Carlos Rivera this is key to understanding what makes a hotel bar like Bemelmans tick. The walls are adorned with the rustic murals of Ludwig Bemelman and an art deco lamp at each table sumptuously lights the rich leather banquets. This is a bar that encompasses the axiom of hotel bars being an escape, something that Rivera alludes to via Bemelmans carefully orchestrated seating plan, to make sure guests are in an environment conducive to their personality or mood. The cocktail list is currently being updated, with a heavy focus on the classics as is befitting in such an archetypal New York setting.
One of the first of the hotel bars to completely revamp their program was The Palm Court Bar at The Plaza Hotel. Having seen the latest James Bond film the previous evening, there was always going to be an element of fantasy accompanying my approach to The Plaza. The revolving doors act as a portal, whisking you from the madness of Midtown to a different era. There are hotel lobby bars and then there is The Palm Court Bar. Bespoke furnishings surround the centrepiece of the room, an island bar that is sumptuously embraced by a marble bar top, all lying directly under the same stained glass canopy that now exists on a seabed inside the Titanic. Under the direction of James Menite, The Palm Court bar now has a drinks standard to match the décor.
The elephant in the room and one of the major reasons that hotel bars have struggled to keep up in New York is the role of unions. Hiring a fancy new young bar director is all well and good, but is he really going to be able to teach a 60 year old barman who’s been in the role for 30 years his whole skillset again? Whilst some agree that creativity can be stifled as a result, others cite the qualities that New York hotel bars are known for as being irreplaceable.
What Caiafa, Rivera and Menite all agree upon is that the main role of the hotel bar is to act as an escape to a bygone era. An escape from the everyday transporting you to a time when men removed their hats when they entered a room and the only thing sharper than a pant crease was a woman’s wit. The emergence of the new breed of modern hotels has forced the grand old dames to up their game. The NoMad burst on the scene three years ago and recently had both its bars voted in the Worlds 50 Best, a feat previously only accomplished by The Savoy’s American and Beaufort Bars. The Ace hotel is a rapidly expanding brand that attracts a young and diverse crowd, and The Wythe in Williamsburg dazzles the party set with its rooftop decadence.
She smiles. The bartender turns his back and does the same. The Duke’s fingers dance on the keys like a cat with some twine. This is the hotel bar. This is New York.
*Credit to Raymond Chandler for that one. Nobody did it better.