NEW YORK – The mythical Manhattan of “Mad Men,” of Holly Golightly, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers can sometimes seem like a distant dream, like a turn-of-the-century ocean liner that sailed out of New York harbor into the mist many decades ago.
The same could easily be said of the cozy, dimly-lit cocktail bars that used to be scattered around this part of New York, where men in tuxedos and women in gowns would share a quiet drink or two at lunch, after work, or into the wee small hours.
Nowadays, nothing about these magical places, or the people who went to them, seems real. And yet for many of us, these gleaming monuments to martinis and manhattans forged our vision of what a bar should look and feel like in New York City; dark wooden walls, comfortable leather chairs, miniature table lamps, perhaps even a pianist in the corner, hammering out a Cole Porter tune. Many businesses attempt to recreate these fantasy bars, but such efforts often fall flat.
You can’t manufacture nostalgia. You can fabricate history. Like great French wines or actresses, the best ones just get better with age. But before you contact the World Wildlife Fund about adding the Classic Manhattan Bar to its endangered species list, head over to Madison Avenue. There, on East 76th Street, inside The Carlyle hotel and just to the left of its gold-trimmed doors, you’ll find a dark, tinted glass door. Behind the door, the bar you dreamed about will be there, right before your eyes. For it’s here that you’ll find Bemelmans Bar, an Art Deco-style gem that continues to thrive after being in business for nearly seven decades.
“People are eager to find the New York they remember, and that they don’t ever see around much anymore,” says Javier Martinez, assistant food and beverage manager at The Carlyle, who we caught up with on a recent Saturday afternoon in Bemelmans Bar. “And I think somehow The Carlyle and Bemelmans is able to deliver that expectation and bring them back to the good days.” Bemelmans Bar opened in 1947, but the elegant, understated lounge looks and feels more like something from New York’s iconic Art Deco period when The Carlyle first opened in 1929.
But it’s more than just what Bemelmans Bar looks and sounds like which sets it apart. It’s the sense of history you can feel in this space
The bar’s name comes from the author and illustrator Ludwig Bemelman, who created “Madeline,” the popular children’s book series about a young, red-headed daredevil raised in a Catholic boarding school in Paris. Bemelman’s famous creation and various whimsical characters (ice skating elephants, rabbits smoking cigars) adorn the walls of the bar. Bemelman painted the characters himself in exchange for living in The Carlyle with his family for a year and a half. Bemelmans Bar’s murals are the only surviving public commission created by the artist on view to the public. And they’re just one of many details which make this charming place so unique – the bar features hand-painted lampshades and a curved, wood-paneled bar, too, which lend the establishment a real sense of character.
And there’s the live music, seven nights a week, played on a black, grand piano situated in the center of the room. On a recent Saturday night, just after 5:30 p.m., Bemelmans was packed with people of all ages as a piano player played a wide range of tunes. A bartender told me it’s like this every night once the music starts.
But it’s more than just what Bemelmans Bar looks and sounds like which sets it apart. It’s the sense of history you can feel in this space. President John F. Kennedy owned a suite on the 34th floor of the building and often drank here. And after Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Jacqueline Kennedy and her children lived in The Carlyle for 10 months, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Another president, Harry S. Truman, once stayed in the hotel and had a drink (Old Grand-Dad bourbon on the rocks) in Bemelmans Bar, according to a New York Times interview with Bemelmans longtime bartender, Tommy Rowles, who retired in 2012 after working as a bartender there for 53 years.
But you don’t have to be an A-list celebrity to be treated like one at Bemelmans Bar.
But Truman’s a mere footnote in the long, storied history of Bemelmans Bar and The Carlyle. Frank Sinatra was a regular, as was Princess Diana, David Bowie, Robert Redford, George Clooney, Tom Cruise and a long list of other instantly-recognizable actors, singers, and politicians. In recent years, Woody Allen and his New Orleans jazz band have regularly performed on Monday nights in the Café Carlyle across the hall from Bemelmans. Actor Bill Murray filmed “A Very Murray Christmas” in Bemelmans and other locations in The Carlyle. And it’s not unusual for famous singers to drop in to sing a few tunes after performing at Madison Square Garden or Rockefeller Center. This includes Paul McCartney, Bono, Billy Joel, Cyndi Lauper and Mariah Carey. All of them have sung at Bemelmans Bar over the years, according to The Wall Street Journal.
But you don’t have to be an A-list celebrity to be treated like one at Bemelmans Bar. And that’s part of the enduring appeal of this unique place. Everyone feels special here. And famous people are treated just like everyone else.
But no matter how great a bar looks or how famous its clientele, great bars don’t survive just on good looks. They have to make great drinks
“It’s a timeless bar and it’s special for everybody,” Martinez said. “We have people who visit the city, people who live around the corner. We have people who have been coming here for 40 years. We have people who will come for the first time and fall in love with the bar. I think it’s that combination of things that brings you back.” On a recent visit there, a man seated beside me celebrating his wife’s birthday recalled first coming to the bar 1976. Asked how the bar has changed over the years, the man smiled and said, “It hasn’t changed at all.” He then pointed to my seat and said he saw Mick Jagger sitting right there years ago. Someone in the bar overheard the man and whispered, “He owns an apartment here.”More importantly, Mick’s apparently a manhattan drinker.
But no matter how great a bar looks or how famous its clientele, great bars don’t survive just on good looks. They have to make great drinks. And that has been the case for years at Bemelmans Bar. “Some of our clients keep telling me we have the best manhattans and the best martinis in the city,” Martinez said. Few would disagree. not only are their manhattans perfectly made, they come with a small carafe on ice, filled with a generous amount of liquor to top off your drink. “Definitely, the cocktails are classic here,” Martinez said. “We don’t play around. They’re pretty straightforward – manhattans, martinis, The Old Cuban has been a best seller for a long, long time.”
The Old Cuban ($23) is a “Champagne Mojito” with Bacardi 8 Rum, muddled mint, fresh lime juice and Angostura Bitters. Served without ice, this subtle, floral concoction tastes like a sophisticated tropical drink with just a hint of fresh mint.
Another popular drink at Bemelmans is their Whiskey Smash ($23), which they invented. Served with ice, the Whiskey Smash includes Maker’s Mark Bourbon Whiskey, muddled mint, muddled lime and simple syrup. And while the ingredients might be similar to a mint julep, this refreshing, light concoction tastes more like a Bourbon mojito.
For Gin aficionados who want something different than a classic martini, there’s the Gin Gin Mule ($21), a mixture of Tanqueray, ginger beer, muddled mint, fresh lime juice and simple syrup. There’s a reason why this drink has the word “mule” in its title. The first sip has a real kick. Served with ice cubes in a tall glass, it’s slightly sweeter than a martini and tastes almost like a Moscow Mule with a twist.
But perhaps one of Bemelmans’ most dangerous drinks is the Passion Royale ($24). Served with crushed ice in a martini glass, the Passion Royale consists of passion fruit infused Vodka and fresh lime juice topped with Champagne. Perfect for a hot, summer day, this drink tastes the tropics in a glass or a grown-up Italian ice. Clean and refreshing, you can barely taste the Vodka, which makes this drink so delightful… and yet so dangerous.
But as great as the drinks are at Bemelmans Bar, that’s only part of what keeps people coming back, year after year. “I think it’s much more than the liquor you pour in a martini glass,” Martinez said. “It’s the murals. It’s the server. It’s the music playing. It’s the socialites popping in. It’s the ambiance that everyone brings to the establishment.” “Every night, you never know what you’re going to get,” Martinez added. “It’s always special. It’s always fun. You never know who’s having a drink by your side. You never know who’s going to play the piano with our resident musicians. It’s a very special place where special things happen all the time.”
Photocredits: The Carlyle, A Rosewood Hotel.