New York City's classic hotel bars
The King Cole Bar at the St Regis is instantly recognizable for its Maxfield Parrish mural that lines the wall behind the bar.
Drinking in one of New York City's classic hotel bars feels very different from drinking in your local neighbourhood juke joint.
The hotel bars of New York City have no shortage of stories detailing their eclectic histories. Many have been in existence for close to a century and have functioned as haunts for celebrated figures of film, theatre, literature, politics and the arts. The bartenders at these establishments are of a different breed, usually older gentlemen dressed smartly and exuding an aura of calm and sophistication that can soothe even the most frazzled tourist. Of course, the drinks are not cheap, averaging around $20 for most classic cocktails. But the service is generally attentive and the environment usually posh, offering a brief respite from the sometimes humdrum reality of day-to-day life. Visiting these bars is a tour of bygone days.
The best place to have a drink at the Algonquin Hotel is in the lobby. Cool jazz fills the room as guests sit on couches and at tables enjoying the dim atmosphere. An Asian-inspired fresco decorates the wall above the registration desk, and the overall vibe is casual but elegant. The Algonquin opened in 1902 and was a centre of New York City literary and theatrical life in its heyday. The hotel claims that William Faulkner wrote his Nobel Prize acceptance speech there in 1950.
The hotel’s Oak Room Supper Club features live cabaret and jazz performances Tuesday through Saturday nights, but with a $50 cover charge and a $30 drink minimum, it might be too expensive for many. This seems to be the point, though, as the Oak Room tends to draw decidedly upscale clientele. Next door is the hotel’s more modern Blue Bar, a small and quiet reprieve from the busy midtown streets. Oldies play over the speakers as the mindful waitstaff take orders and ensure that the bowls of bar snacks remain full. Blue leather booths line the walls covered with Al Hirschfeld drawings, underneath dark wood molding contrasted with a modern splash of blue light at the ceiling's edge. Blue Bar's Old Fashioned cocktail is excellent, its Manhattans are made with Grand Marnier instead of bitters, and its signature drink, the Algonquin, is a refreshing mix of rye, dry vermouth and pineapple juice.
The Roosevelt Hotel, near Grand Central Terminal, opened in 1924 and was celebrated bandleader Guy Lombardo's performance venue for 30 years. Skip the modern Vander Bar, the kind of establishment that hosts "Friday Afternoon Fiestas" where you can purchase buckets of Corona and pitchers of margaritas, for the old-school Madison Club Lounge instead. This classic establishment lines the wall of the hotel facing Madison Avenue, which can be seen through stained glass windows behind the bar, and is a perfect place to sip an aperitif and watch hotel guests go about their business.
The famed Waldorf Astoria opened at its current location in 1931. The Bull and Bear is a steakhouse located just outside the hotel lobby, and it is the kind of restaurant that dictates an "elegant casual" dress code on its website. However, what you are wearing is less of a concern if you just visit the beautiful old bar adjacent to the dining room. This is the classic New York City hotel bar at its best. The low lighting highlights the impressive namesake statue perched atop the cocktail shelving, a reference to Wall Street's fickle moods. Paintings of horses hang along the walls surrounding the room, where guests casually chat with amiable bartenders. The ambience feels relaxed and chic, the perfect place for a happy hour cocktail or a witching hour nightcap.