A snowstorm had just swept through New York two days earlier, and despite the calendar’s plea to spring, another storm—and then another—was not far behind. But beyond the gilded Deco façade of 551 Fifth Avenue, a crowd of Midtowners was several Mai Tais into endless summer.
Tommy Bahama occupies the ground floor of the Fred F. French Building—a beautiful, landmarked, 38-floor skyscraper named for a 1920s Manhattan real estate developer. When the French Building was erected, in 1927, 29 other skyscrapers were also under construction throughout Midtown, transforming the area from a rail yard into a center of globally revered luxury. It was also a moment when archaeologists were plundering the Middle East and the ancient world’s influence surfaced in everything from scarab-studded jewelry to architectural motifs. The French Building’s design is a mash-up of Art Deco and ancient wonder detailing: winged horses, Assyrian ziggurats and Egyptian lotuses. The development was deemed “the seventh wonder of 20th-century commerce.”
Somehow, this odd juxtaposition of baroque gilding and faux-tropical whimsy works together. Appropriation and wealth in the early 20th century fits seamlessly with appropriation and wealth in the 21st. Tommy Bahama merely swaps the Near East for the Caribbean, ziggurats for model sailboats and winged horses for patio furniture.
Off the Avenue and up a spiral staircase, guests that Friday evening were welcomed into the Tommy Bahama restaurant not by a host stand, but by two slim white mannequins dressed in tropical prints gazing vacantly at the opposite wall. A soft voice crooned “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” and a fairly empty restaurant yawned ahead. Just around the corner, a lively crowd was packed shoulder-to-shoulder along a counter manned by two harried bartenders dressed in white linen uniforms. The crooner turned out to be a middle-aged man in a tropical shirt, jamming on an electric guitar a few feet from the crowd and across from a wall decal that stated, “Paradise isn’t just a place, it’s a moment, a feeling.”
According to the cocktail menu, happy hour ran from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., and despite it being a quarter past the hour, the friendly bartender insisted that the happiness was far from over. You can order two very strong drinks for a mere $20 and watch as a parade of pupu platters tumble out from the kitchen just opposite the bar. The crowd, a mix of European tourists and suited young professionals, was charged with the energy of a golden era singles bar.
Welcome to Paradise
If Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville chain (comprised of hotels, restaurants and products) is the culmination of a life of actual beach-bumming, Tommy Bahama (18 store-restaurant-bar concepts nationwide) is the approximation of that lifestyle through the lens of a business park CEO. Bob Emfield, Tony Margolis and their wives, who are curiously never mentioned by name in articles documenting the brand’s creation story, dreamed up Tommy Bahama as their collective alter ego. Bahama, the character, had enough money, class, virility and bon viveur to live as though on a perpetual weekend beach vacation—one that includes Sandy Bay half-zip sweaters in parrot green ($145), piña colada cake ($85) and etched frond double Old-Fashioned glasses ($45). When the brand launched, in the 1990s, its vision for happy-go-lucky white male privilege was perfectly aligned with the times.
Today, that carefree—and largely irrelevant—ethos is telegraphed via ambiguously tropical food (macadamia crusted goat cheese with mango salsa, coconut crusted crab cakes) and shockingly decent cocktails (pineapple yuzu Mojito, something called a Crazy Cuban). Despite its middle-aged bro overtones and canned exoticism, the New York restaurant and its ground floor Marlin Bar are, in combination, a weirdly attractive respite from an avenue stuffed with stuff.
A bit like an off-color movie from the 1980s or ‘90s, Tommy Bahama’s confident oblivion is charming—if passé. The vibes are good, the food and drinks are cheap (for a limited window). For a New Yorker inundated with infinite options, it provides ironic pleasantry—and for those tourists seeking the wonders of Fifth Avenue, it’s a veritable capitalist’s paradise.
Tip: Happy Hour is from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Stick to the basics, like Mojitos, Margaritas and Mai Tais. The things that sound sweet are sweet, but the former recommendations were, on our visit, strong and satisfying. The Marlin Bar downstairs gets crowded quickly, but the restaurant bar upstairs provides a bit more breathing room. Tommy Bahama | 551 Fifth Avenue | 212-537-0960