In New York City, preservation rarely prevails over progress; so the dear old things the city selects to hold close—to keep polished and lustrous—seem that much more worthy of veneration simply by virtue of their age and unlikely survival. Bemelmans Bar, ensconced within the stately Carlyle Hotel on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, is one such curio. Or so it may seem at first glance.
Taking stock of the warm, leather-and-wood–trimmed barroom, there’s a lot to unpack. A gentle current of live jazz provides a dreamy, disarming soundtrack. Thickly cushioned banquettes, amber-glowing table lamps, and dinner-jacketed servers all draw from the color palette of patrician luxury. And in return for its lavish paragons of old-school fine dining and boozing, the Bemelmans menu will graciously divest you of your prettiest pennies and then some.
Though the bill may be serious, the place, for all its elegant trappings, is refreshingly adept at not taking itself too seriously. Consider the bar’s mural program, its crown jewel: dating from 1947 and executed by Ludwig Bemelmans, creator of the Madeline picture books, the images take inspiration from nearby Central Park and imbue the illustrator’s namesake establishment with a character that’s both whimsical and disarmingly sweet. (Bemelmans famously bartered his artwork—the only surviving commission of his still on public view—for lodging for him and his family at the Carlyle.) It’s art for the well-heeled kid-at-heart.
So does this sepia picture of old New York belong in digitized, 21st-century Gotham? Yes—and not simply to serve as a charming throwback to a bygone era, or as a museum paying tribute to a lost bar culture. This room has a certain swagger that cannot be ascribed to age alone; its cool is a cultivated thing, and it’s more modern than it lets on. The proof of that is right behind the bar.
In the early 2000s, after the hotel came under new ownership, management sought to breathe some life into old Bemelmans Bar. Cocktail legend Dale DeGroff was brought on to reinvigorate the drinks program, and he installed Audrey Saunders (later of Pegu Club) to oversee the new setup. Their subtle interventions helped Bemelmans continue to live its swanked-out Champagne truth, while also feeling like a fitting piece of a New York cocktail scene that has greatly raised the stakes.
Today, Bemelmans’ rotation of signature mixed drinks speaks to the bar’s history without seeming antiquated. The Red Velvet combines rye, spiced plum tea, lemon and egg white—along with a dusting of bee pollen—for a sophisticated twist on a Whiskey Sour that’s as ruby-bright as the bartenders’ uniforms. The Luxury Sidecar, another Bemelmans signature cocktail, presents a continental take on the classic thanks to three French-made ingredients: Martell Cordon Bleu cognac, Cointreau, and Calvados. And what drink could capture Bemelmans’ stance as a confidently longstanding cocktail den in a town of brash newcomers better than the spirit-forward, gin-and-vodka–drenched Vesper?
One might say the key to lasting preservation in New York turns out to be not that which keeps something old intact, but rather the little doses of progress that make that something old feel new again.