No matter your point of origin, getting to Bemelmans Bar takes a considerable amount of travel—roughly seventy years into the past. Thankfully the golden revolving door of the Carlyle Hotel is a kind of time machine, spinning you into its Art Deco lobby, resplendent with a sparkling showcase of “Estate Fine Jewelry.” Ask for directions. The concierge will point you towards a host, who informs you that Bemelmans’s twenty-five-dollar per person table fee doesn’t apply to customers sitting before 9:30 p.m. Mazel tov!
Once you’re settled, the Upper East Side piano bar is terribly enchanting. 24-karat gold leaf coats the ceiling, bathing candlelit couples and casual professionals in a patina of cinematic wealth. On a recent Thursday, house pianist Chris Gillespie crooned on a Yamaha grand, and lyricism emanated from the walls, painted by the creator of the children’s book series Madeline, Ludwig Bemelmans. Titled Central Park and completed in 1947, the bespectacled elephants and tuxedoed rabbits envelop the space with mirth, an antidote to white-jacket waiters serving Osetra caviar for 235 dollars per ounce.
As much as this is a bar in New York, it’s a bar about New York. It’s where Sofia Coppola filmed Bill Murray singing “Baby It’s Cold Outside” for his Netflix special, A Very Murray Christmas. And where Carrie Bradshaw, in the Sex and the City movie, advises her assistant: “Enjoy yourself—that’s what your twenties are for. Your thirties are to learn the lessons. And your forties are to pay for the drinks!” ’Cause honey, they’re not cheap. Classics, like a twenty-one-dollar dirty Plymouth martini, come delivered with militant efficiency, its price tag softened by a sidecar wading in a small chiller. It’s perfectly satisfying. A detour into specialty cocktails, especially the La Poire and Ginger, tasted like spring break: refreshingly sweet, and half the actual price.
But no one said time travel was cheap. Seven decades back and four cocktails later, the check was delivered, including the unexpected twenty-five-dollar fee. The host was summoned. “So you thought you could just sit for three hours?” he said, not really asking, so much as declaring, in the words of Madeline: “That’s all there is, there isn’t anymore.”
Written from the most philosophical of perches (a barstool),“ the Well” distills the idiosyncrasies of prized New York City taverns.
MITCHELL KUGA is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn by way of Hawaii.