The flight was long and scourged by delays. The weather is damp and chilly and the wrong clothing was packed, which doesn’t matter anyway because the airline lost the bag and it won’t arrive till the next day. The taxi driver insisted that other hotel was the right one (it wasn’t). Okay, at least the carry on can be left for a while, though didn’t the website suggest this was a double room?
It’s time for a drink!
There are few things more disheartening after a stressful day or two of travel only to discover the hotel bar is merely an afterthought. There’s a list of sticky sweet “tinis” and something that is supposed to pass as a Manhattan, presented as a sludgy mess because the bartender was told to shake it, not stir it, never mind how long that vermouth’s been sitting open. A question such as “Do you have whisky?” is met with puzzlement and panic, as though one just demanded a breakdown of string theory at gunpoint. A highball is served with a big squeeze of lime (this was not by request) and costs upwards of $20, which does not reflect the cost of either the whisky used or the price of soda and ice, and tipping is still necessary on top of this. From here it can get worse (the cocktail olives are so old they have Ellis Island documentation).
Sadly, more often than not, this is what it’s like to visit a hotel bar in New York City, which attracts more than 60 million visitors a year. SIXTY. MILLION. And these travelers have to lay their heads somewhere. If they choose to stay in a hotel, most of them charge at least $250 a night, and typically much more than that, and they get away with it. Many of them are also somehow acquitted for the crime of housing a truly terrible, unwelcoming, overpriced bar. What’s even more frustrating is people pay for drinks there, and the bar might even attract an actual crowd with a line for the elevator if it happens to be on a roof or terrace with a view. “Hey, look at the Empire State Building at sunset! Why, that almost makes this $25 Mojito devoid of any actual mint worth it!”
Not too long ago it was the rule rather than the exception that New York hotel bars were a sanctuary of welcoming, comfort and stately elegance. Not only did they provide nourishment to weary travelers, but local New Yorkers of all classes regularly frequented them too. This is because they were not only terrific hotel bars, they were excellent bars in their own right. However, through the decades, with the Disneyfication of Times Square and other significant changes to the demographic of the city landscape, private hotels have been purchased by corporations who use them as a tourist industry cash cow and have either closed or worse, stripped the very soul out of the saloons within them.
Luckily, some of the classics have stood the tests of time, and newer hotels have understood the necessity of providing a lounge for visitors that is the right mix of hospitality, style, substance, ingenuity and value. Here is a list of some the safe harbors in an urban sea of boozy mediocrity that are so good at being hotel bars, New Yorkers like drinking there too.
Hotel: Langham Place
400 Fifth Avenue
(2nd floor, adjacent to Ai Fiori restaurant)
New York, NY 10018
Why drink there: It’s the bar equivalent of a comfortable pair of stilettos – somehow it manages to be both stylish and accommodating. Pricing is reasonable too – except for some specialty drinks, all standard cocktails are $17, which for a hotel bar is quite rare. For a splurge, a drink can also be made for $30 if it contains one of the “library” vintage spirits on the back bar, which is still less than the typical cost around town. The creative, seasonal menu has a cocktail for every palate, from the vodka shy to the pisco curious to the mezcal bold, and aperitivos in between, as well as some excellent wine selections by the glass and bottle. Might as well get some delicious bites from Ai Fiori while you’re there – everything from bar snacks to a full multi-course set dinner is available at the bar.
Insider tip: I’m a huge fan of what I refer to as “amuse” cocktails (mini cocktails with just a couple of sips, like the drinks version of an amuse bouche) and bartender Pete Stanton is highly gifted in that medium if one knows to ask.
What to order now: Summer Garibaldi – a refreshing twist on the cumulous Italian classic, with fresh watermelon juice and black pepper tincture added to the classic combo of Campari and orange juice.
Hotel: Park South Hotel
127 E. 27th Street
New York, NY 10016
Why drink there: Here’s another bar off of an attached Italian restaurant that serves great food with a welcoming neighborhood vibe. The playful program is led by Ted Kilpatrick, with drinks such as the Apple Martinique (with green jolly rancher-infused rhum!), Pack of Newports, Pass the Dutch and the Rose Hill Sour (an ode to the surrounding neighborhood), and drinks are kept at a fair $17 and under. It’s also another choice spot for wine aficionados. Cozy, comfortable seating and attention to detail adds to the experience – on a recent visit, even a simple Sipsmith gin and tonic was served with refreshing slices of lemon, orange and grapefruit – elegant, but not too gussied up with superfluous ingredients. Fabulous pizza and great drinks? Sí, per favore!
Insider tip: Ask for the secret Narnia cocktail bar menu. (And for a fun, casual bar with a view, head to the Roof at Park South upstairs)!
Hotel: Mandarin Oriental Hotel, New York
80 Columbus Circle at 60th Street
New York, NY 10023
Why drink there: The simple answer to that question is because it’s cool. The longer answer is having a New York location of Chicago’s Aviary is thrilling, and the Office NYC, a speakeasy that will be accessed through it once it opens (for now there is a lobby entrance hidden across the room from the concierge desk amid the construction) is a way to experience that next-level concept. If they ever met on a classic New York bon vivant artist fantasy plain, this bar is where I imagine Edward Gorey and the lounge artist Shag would go for a drink – all lavish seating, dark panels, curios and exotic art. The drinks are equally out there. On the menu, a drink simply named “Tequila” is mixed with grapefruit, ginger, horseradish and lapsang souchong tea, or “Rum” with dijon mustard and passionfruit. This bar is more on the pricey side (though service is included) and requires a bit more planning ahead, so spur of the moment, happen-to-be-in-the-neighborhood-let’s-drop-in type situations might be difficult – it’s best to reserve.
Insider tip: If you prefer not to have smoked salt and truffle in your amaretto sour, they emphasize a custom bartender’s choice scenario. Or head there with someone who has a really huge expense account and try something made with one of the ultra rare, dusty bottles in the display cabinet.
Hotel: New York Edition
5 Madison Avenue (at 24th Street)
New York, NY
Why drink there: Located upstairs in the former quarters of the Metropolitan Life offices, this gorgeous, architecturally awe-inspiring setting is a love letter to the city that will make locals swoon while impressing visitors. Photos of iconic city characters, films, places and scenes adorn every wall in the adjacent restaurant. Images of rock stars gaze edgily over the fabulous purple pool table in the room that leads to the stunning 24K gold leaf bar, where drinks range from $14 to $21 and aren’t too fussy. There’s a well-curated spirits collection ripe for sipping on the back bar, and the wines and beers are also well chosen. For those wishing to dine at the bar, well, you’re in for quite a few treats from British chef Jason Atherton.
Insider tip: It gets packed at dinner, but this is a fantastic spot for a boozy lunch either solo or not, especially if you like Martinis and fried chicken. Also, at least once, order the American Cereal Killer with bourbon, Cheerios milk (trust me here), vanilla syrup and Angostura.
Hotel: The Edison
228 West 47th Street
New York, NY 10036
Why drink there: When it was renovated under new ownership in 2012, this bar, which has been a Times Square theater district watering hole for decades – quenching the thirsts of actors, showgirls and struggling playwrights along with hotel guests, theater-goers and more than a few local winos – was pretty run down. The big challenge in reinventing it was to make the same, but different, appealing to both tourists and seasoned locals alike. Mission accomplished, with a big, welcoming “HEY FOLKS!” sign outside. The menu is small, with universally recognizable variations on tropical rum classics (Daiquiris, Tortugas, Dark and Stormies and a fantastic Piña Colada riff called the Escape) as well as a few fresh ideas with or without rum as the base spirit (it’s also quite an unsung whisky bar too). They keep some items casual, because they know that sometimes at the end of a long journey (or a hectic day around town) all you want is a cheap beer and a shot. One of the best things about the The Rum House’s renovation is its restoration as a piano bar, with toe-tapping live acts performing almost nightly.
Insider tip: The bar is busiest just before and after theater, so one of the best times to snag a bar seat is during performance times.
Fun fact: Does it look familiar? It should. The bar is where key scenes in the 2015 Best Picture Oscar-winning film Birdman took place.
Hotel: The William
24 East 39th Street
New York, NY 10016
No phone, but reservations accepted online
Why drink there: There are only a small handful of dependable bars in the Empire State Building/Herald Square/Bryant Park neighborhood that aren’t blatant tourist traps and this is one of them. Hotel guests have really lucked out lodging amongst an outpost of one of the city’s best cocktail destinations. Like its Chelsea sister bar, the beverage program under the direction of Meaghan Dorman is top-notch, with the same imaginative attention to its beverage menu (and the option to order favorites from the other RLR, Dear Irving and the Bennett). Also like its sibling, the furnishings and decor evoke a sense of opulent, old timey New York parlor splendor, with curtained off seating areas tricked out with service buttons, though in this location there are separate rooms and in one of them, a bar with seating is in full view.
Insider tip: The bar is closed Sundays. The best time to visit is on weekdays, especially after a meal at the beautiful adjacent dining room or downstairs at The Shakespeare.
80 Wythe Avenue, 6th Floor
Brooklyn, NY 11249
Why drink there: Everyone loves a rooftop bar with a city view. However, it is even more spectacular to see the city from across the river and take in the whole skyline. On the 6th floor of this converted early 20th century former cooperage, the bar and surrounding outdoor terrace are in prime sightline. Under the direction of Andrew Tarlow of hit local spots Marlow & Sons, Diner and Roman’s, there are some terrific, balanced drinks on the menu (well-priced including service), such as the Sixth Floor Sling (a less fruity take on the warm weather gin refresher), the pretty in pink Lola Montez (Herradura tequila reposado, pineau des charentes, Peychaud’s bitters and sparkling rosé) and solid takes on classics. In the summer, they keep a well stocked selection of rosé (there’s even a separate rosé bar on some evenings), along with other above average wine and beer selections. This is the perfect spot to impress out-of-towners or have a date night. (Note to self: must remember to view a snowstorm from up there some time.)
Insider tip: Given the trendy Williamsburg location, it’s obviously packed with hipsters on weekends, and there’s a $10 cover charge (no cash accepted) Friday and Saturday nights. Reservations are recommended. Oh, and best bar food item is the addictive She-Wolf bread and ricotta.
Hotel: The Surrey
20 East 76th Street
New York, NY 10021
Why drink there: This nouveau chic bar is Chef Daniel Bouloud’s ode to the late 20th century NYC art world. It’s so fabulous-looking it’s almost daunting, but don’t be shy. The bar itself is quite small, but it overlooks an expansive lounge, and both options are alluring places to sit and people watch. Head bartender Darryl Chan has done a magnificent job balancing familiar classics with items that have a real atlas obscura vibe, taking the guest from New Orleans (Vieux Carre, Brandy Crusty, etc.) to the far east (Once Upon a Time in India), and almost everywhere in between (Give and Take). It’s a well thought out concept considering the swank setting that attracts so many wealthy globetrotters, and I wish more hotel bars would seize that creative opportunity.
Insider tip: One of the best things about this bar are the gratuitous snacks – olives and chips- that are served upon arrival, making it an ideal spot for pre-dinner cocktails. There is also a fabulous late night bar menu from 10pm till close (which varies throughout the week). Don’t be afraid to be a little daring when ordering the drinks.
The Neo Classics
Hotel: The NoMad
1170 Broadway at 28th Street
New York, NY 10001
They’re so famous by now that not much needs to be said about the bars at the NoMad. Both the library bar off the main restaurant and the more frenetic, expansive Elephant Bar behind it offer a long list of some of the most intricate, balanced and compelling drinks in the city, not to mention insanely great bar food, especially that divine chicken pot pie.
Hotel: The Iroquois
49 West 44th Street
New York, NY 10036
This sexy little bar was one of the first in the city to bring speakeasy style back to (legal) hotel imbibing.
Hotel: The Pierre
2 East 61st Street
New York, NY 10065
The lighting could stand a bit of dimming, but the drink offerings and service at this luxuriously decorated art deco lounge are superb. It’s also an ideal spot for an upscale afternoon meeting with full tea service.
Hotel: The Carlyle
35 East 76th Street
New York, NY 10021
This timeless, ornate piano bar named for and largely decorated with the artwork of Ludwig Bemelmans is one of the great treasures of the city. Read more about it in our article about NYC institutions here.
Hotel: The St. Regis
2 East 55th Street
New York, NY 10022
Most of the drink offerings stay in a classic comfort zone. However, this is where the Red Snapper, New York’s precursor to the Bloody Mary, was born, and dang straight this is the thing to order here. It’s still such a joy to sit at that bar staring at the famous “Old King Cole” mural painted by Maxfield Parrish in 1906. Why are the guards flanking the king and his jesters giggling? Cute story – ask the bar man.