I was on my second drink of the night and feeling swell. Sitting right next to me was a ringer for a Liza Minnelli look-alike contest winner, specifically the Liza seen in Muppets Take Manhattan. Her mink coat kept sliding off the leather banquette between us. “Oh, you’re such a doll!” she enthused as I grabbed the coat just before it fell one more time. Sitting back on the amply upholstered tan leather, reminiscent of the seats from a Mercedes 600 Pullman, it was a pleasure to take in the warm glow of the room; people were talking, snacking, and listening to the piano tinkling in the middle of the room.
Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle Hotel (35 East 76th Street; 212-744-1600) has been a gathering place and watering hole for the well-heeled since 1947, mixing Upper East Side values (money, class, comfort) with a hushed, convivial vibe. With its low, gold-painted ceiling and murals painted by one-time Carlyle resident Ludwig Bemelmans, the children’s book author of Madeline fame (he supposedly painted them in exchange for rent), walking into the bar is like stepping into old New York, but with very modern prices. Most cocktails are $25 and an Amstel Light will set you back eleven bucks, making it one of the most expensive bars in the city. But still, a visit here is well worth the splurge.
Just across the hall from where Woody Allen plays with his New Orleans band on most Monday nights, Bemelmans is one of the best places to celebrate over a drink. It’s relatively cellphone-free (thank goodness), with the exception of some older patrons still trying to figure out how to use them. While it might not attract the city’s young and hip (“Man, this place is like the Botox express!” as a friend put it) it’s fun to get dressed up and make a night of it at the bar, where you’re likely to find young uptowners wearing Ferragamo ties and slicked-back hair next to gaggles of Portuguese businessmen talking about ports and tax havens.
As this is a New York–centric bar, your best bet is to stick with classic cocktails — the seasoned bartenders, in their red tuxedo vests, have perfected them. The best deal might be the martinis, cosmopolitans, and manhattans, each of which comes with a sidecar atop crushed ice, which is essentially a second cocktail for the price of one.
The intimate room, with its leather-clad seating running against the wall, encourages quiet conversation and a feeling of privacy. Small shaded lamps (like the ones in that nightclub scene in Goodfellas) decorate all 21 tables. The snack tray delivered to each table — a mix of cheese wafers, salt-and-vinegar chips, and possibly the best nut mix in all of NYC — is easy to devour while sipping.
The best time to head to Bemelmans is between 5:30 and 8:30 p.m., when noted pianist Earl Rose plays a mix of American standards and originals. Rose likes to patter about Billy Joel’s frequent unannounced drops-ins while he tickles the keys. When the jazz trio comes on at nine, there’s a cover charge for sitting at the bar and tables.
While drinking here, you see people taking their time, enjoying the people they’re with. It’s not a place to take that co-worker you barely know — it’s where to take your oldest friends or that out-of-town uncle you really like.
After those two martinis and about four refills of nut mix, we exited the Carlyle doors onto the street, knowing that a vintage snapshot of New York, coattails and all, is still just off 76th and Madison.