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Bar Review: The Reimagining of New York’s Four Seasons Bar

In Robert Simonson's "Bar Review," he offers a look at some of today’s most notable new venues. Here, he considers The Bar, the Major Food Group's renovation of the iconic bar at New York's Four Seasons.

My first order was, of course, a Martini.

It wasn’t so much that The Bar has made Martinis a focus of its debut cocktail menu. It was more that a Martini was the sort of drink that was typically ordered at this iconic, half-century-old bar.

Any former familiars of the Four Seasons bar—which began service in early May—won’t feel disoriented by the new iteration, rechristened by the Major Food Group as part of a multi-million-dollar renovation that includes the two dining areas previously known as the Grill Room and the Pool Room. It is so respectful of the previous model that it can scarcely be termed a reinvention. Call it simply an improvement—which may still sound like sacrilege to traditionalists.

The old bar was much beloved. Though a touch stuffy and blue-blazer exclusive, it was nonetheless a diamond-bright example of a certain kind of midcentury New York sophistication. It was hard not to be seduced by the sleek, modernist Philip Johnson-Mies van der Rohe-Eero Saarinen design, including the square, rosewood bar and famous cantilevered barstools.

Under Major Food Group’s careful eye, the bartenders are still formally jacketed, but the service is better, more attentive and adept. This is particularly true if you find yourself in the hands of Charles Hardwick, a consummate barman who has worked everywhere from Blue Owl to Pravda to Betony. While a product of the modern mixology movement, Hardwick, a native New Yorker, has always had an old-school, people-first ethic about him.

The landmarked bones of the bar are the same, just cleaner and brighter and reupholstered. Between the newly lustrous island back bar, which has been polished up, its bottle carousels again mobile, and the freshly cleaned metal sculpture by Richard Lippold that drips from the ceiling above it, there has been inserted a thick, horizontally inclined crown of fresh flowers. (This is a nod, perhaps, to the floral fecundity of Le Grenouille, a nearly-as-old French neighbor a couple blocks west on 52nd Street.)

And that Martini? I liked the Martinis at the old Four Seasons bar. They were jumbo-sized, stiff and satisfied in a rough-hewn, post-war sort of way. But they could be watery and a bit warm, and lacked subtlety. The House Martini at The Bar, meanwhile, is made with two gins (Plymouth and Tanqueray) and two vermouths (Noilly Prat dry and Dolin blanc). The drink is wonderful, a taste of blue fire, dry without being silly about it and cold as the heart of a Wall Street banker.

It’s also batched and chilled in advance. When you order a Martini, the bartender does not reach for a mixing glass and barspoon, but a chilled Christofle decanter. The contents of the decanter are then poured into an equally chilled Christofle Martini glass, which sits upon a gold metal coaster thick and heavy enough to do service as a hockey puck.

A few weeks back, when word got out about these pre-batched drinks, a lot of Martini martinets got their backs up. I sympathized. Nothing can replace the sight and sound of a Martini made before you. But there’s also something to be said for a Martini that is bracingly cold and gets to you in under 60 seconds. And there’s little argument to be made against deliciousness, however it is achieved.

The rest of the first page of the cocktail menu—which is two pages and 19 cocktails long, most of them classics—is filled out with drinks from the Martini family tree (all pre-batched and chilled). Inside the mellow Tuxedo Cocktail, gin and sherry engage in a gentlemanly battle for supremacy, while the rich, amber-colored Turf Club, made of Old Tom gin, Noilly Prat ambre vermouth, maraschino liqueur and absinthe, actually dwells rather far from Martiniland. It drinks like an evening’s punctuation, the Old Tom laying out a rich canvas onto which the maraschino and absinthe dash deep fruit and herbal notes. (The cocktails are priced at $18, which might seem like a lot until you consider what you’re getting in terms of atmosphere and accoutrements, and that your average downtown Negroni will run you just a few dollars less.)

Inside The Bar

All the recipes are the work of Thomas Waugh, MFG’s director of bar operations, who has built the programs at Carbone, ZZ’s Clam Bar and Dirty French and worked behind the bar at Death & Co. Much of the press about MFG centers on its food, high prices and its restaurants’ deconstructivist, nouveau-riche takes on old dining models (see: Carbone, ZZ’s Clam Bar). But Waugh has long been one of their secret weapons, quietly ensuring that diners will get a good drink at any outlet.

The Bar is a perfect assignment for Waugh, whose original cocktails usually skew toward classical models. “My goal when writing this menu was that anyone that frequented these mid-town establishments in the ‘50s and ‘60s would recognize every single drink,” says Waugh. “I wanted to be true to the originals, but use modern technique.”

Once you get past the Martini variations, the second half of the cocktail list is made up of other classics, including drinks with names any generation would recognize: Rob Roy, Manhattan, Grasshopper, Champagne Cocktail. Taste-wise, each is recognizable as the drink in question, but goosed a bit with an extra layer of flavor. The Rob Roy, for instance, is made with single-malt Scotch, not blended, and a bit of oloroso sherry.

They are classic cocktails, supercharged.

While there are high points, Waugh’s success within this second, non-Martini section is more scattered. The Screwdriver, made with orange juice, orange marmalade, orange blossom water and orange bitters, is a valiant effort to make a dull drink interesting. But it remains largely one-dimensional, aside from the too-assertive cinnamon dusting on top. And the Grill Sour—a sort of Bee’s Knees variation made with gin, lemon juice and a honey-lavender syrup—tries so hard to be liked it verges on pandering. The drink is pleasant, but not memorable.

The Manhattan, however, doesn’t muck about. Made of two-and-a-half ounces Wild Turkey 101 rye and a three-quarter ounce mix of Carpano Antica vermouth and Cointreau Cherry, it tastes like a distillate of 1960s New York: strong, swaggering, unapologetic. The succulent Jack Rose—an applejack sour that is notoriously tough to get right—is also a winner. The mix of Calvados and Laird’s Bonded Apple Brandy gives it an intercontinental suavity, while a blend of both lime and lemon juices gives it the pop the drink so often lacks. It would be fair to call it the best Jack Rose in town.

The clientele in these early days suggests that MFG’s involvement may have broken up the thick upper crust that frequented Four Seasons. Over three visits, customers skewed slightly more diverse and youthful. But only slightly. For both good and bad, the place still has the luxe, moneyed feel it always did.

But New York needs a place like that. It’s a money town, after all. While there are casual cocktail dens aplenty in Manhattan these days, former bastions of high-end drinking have fallen down on the job lately. The Oak Room in the Plaza remains closed. Bemelmans Bar in The Carlyle scores high on mood, but low on cocktail quality. The Bar fills a necessary need at the top of the city’s drink chain.

It’s undeniable that The Bar remains a one-percent watering hole (someone is definitely ordering that $600 glass of Stitzel-Weller whiskey on the menu). But if the sight of the privileged class enjoying its privileges puts you off your feed, remember: The landmarked environs within the Seagram Building belong to every New Yorker. So walk in, slap down a twenty, and rent, for an hour, your piece of horsehair-covered real estate. The Bar is still A Bar, after all.

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