Straight-Up Old-Fashioned: 10 Hotel Bars

James Gaddy

The charm of some of the best hotels resides in their ability to transport you to another place and time. Although classic hotel bars have always held a certain antiquarian appeal, some new favorites are dovetailing the recent cocktail revival with historical acumen, dipping into the past for inspiration. Victorian and Edwardian turn-of-the-century aesthetics are popular, but influences are often mixed together, whether it's well-polished art nouveau, pre-Prohibition or Native American influences. And of course, the original classics, such as The Plaza, The Carlyle, The Waldorf=Astoria and The St. Regis, have wisely chosen to update periodically while keeping their time capsules essentially intact. Whether old or new, here are 10 hotel bars that will take you back in time. Collectively, they prove that, like an expertly crafted cocktail, a satisfying hotel bar requires the right blend of inspiration, genealogy and personality.

Bar Pleiades. Photo: M. Hom

Bar Pleiades at The Surrey
The new Bar Pleiades, housed inside The Surrey Hotel, is a Daniel Boulud production. But Bar Pleiades, designed by Lauren Rottet, mixes its art deco streamlined aerodynamics with another French cultural influence: 20th-century fashion. The spirit of Coco Chanel is summoned through mod, black-and-white banquettes, tables and chairs, whose precision coexists easily with the highly decorative quilted walls and lacquer finishes. Like its extraordinarily crafted Sloe Gin Fizz, from mixologist Cameron Bogue, the bar uses high-quality seasonal market ingredients and house-brewed accents to transcend the ordinary through sheer attention to detail.

Courtesy, The Andaz Hotel Wall St

Bar Seven Five at Andaz Wall Street
Bar Seven Five at Andaz Wall Street, which opened in January, takes aim at an American era before Prohibition, when Wall Street was just emerging in the national consciousness. Because designer David Rockwell wanted to replicate the feel of 19th-century Pullman railcars, Bar Seven Five doesn't even have a bar—the bartenders, as in a railway bar car, rotate among various sections and often finish making the drink tableside at the black mini-tables arranged throughout the space. The bar's Perfect Pearl Manhattan, a sweet, minty take on the classic, carries an earthy hint of Lagavulin scotch and, like the hotel itself, offers a welcome note of artisanal theatricality.

Photo: Douglas Lyle Thompson

Ace Hotel
One year after opening, the bar inside the Ace Hotel has expanded in the back of the lobby with a new drink menu. The look and feel, however, continues its clear-eyed adaptation of the Victorian reading room aesthetic, mixed in with Industrial Revolution–era ironwork, Americana kitsch and the most comfortable red suede couches south of Times Square. Aged bookcases bookend the east and south walls, a stuffed wolverine shows its fangs from a terrarium in the center of the room, and animal skins proliferate. Next door, The Breslin restaurant features a menu heavy on pork, while Stumptown Coffee in front features a barista staff heavy on tattoos. A Tin Pan Alley–themed bar is also planned to open in the basement later this year.

Courtesy, The St. Regis New York

King Cole Bar at The St. Regis New York
The two best things about the King Cole Bar in the Midtown hotel The St. Regis are also its most well-known features. The huge Maxfield Parrish mural behind the bar, entitled "Old King Cole," is newly cleaned (with a $100,000 price tag) and nearly as popular as the bar's Bloody Mary (although the bar calls it The Red Snapper), a drink so old it was invented here using only vodka, tomato juice, lemon juice and a little bit of Tabasco—no horseradish, no celery, no fruit. This insistence on basics handily illustrates the bar's overriding identity: a charming old boys' club, surrounded by dark wood and masculine leather chairs. But its understated opulence, like the sheepish grin on Old King Cole's face, suggests that no one should take it all that seriously.

Courtesy, Waldorf=Astoria

Sir Harry's at The Waldorf=Astoria
As the legend goes, Sir Harry's at The Waldorf=Astoria is where the Rob Roy—a tart drink made with scotch and vermouth—was perfected. The bar itself plays off the neoclassical elegance elsewhere in the hotel by emphasizing strong art deco diagonals. The large mirror behind the bar features a shell motif of chevrons that is echoed on etched glass sconces and lamp shades near the checkerboard tables. Like the Perry Como and Bing Crosby songs on the playlist, Sir Harry's has a traditional, offhanded elegance that extends to its cocktail menu, which offers expertly crafted classics: the sidecar, whiskey sour and the bar's best seller, the martini, poured long and strong.

Courtesy, The New York Helmsley Hotel

Harry's Bar at The New York Helmsley Hotel
Follow 42nd Street from nearly halfway between the Chrysler Building and Grand Central Station toward the UN building and you’ll come across The New York Helmsley Hotel, whose newly redesigned bar sits beneath a glowing marble archway and is backed by a lush, Tetris-like grid of lacquered wooden blocks. Conceived by the award-winning interior design firm J/Brice, the furnishings evoke the highly stylized postwar interiors found in 1950s Douglas Sirk films, but with Stevie Wonder providing the soundtrack. Elsewhere around the bar, vivid colors advance and recede between mirrors, chandeliers and Cosmopolitan cocktails, as if the iconic Lipstick Building, just a few blocks north, had been turned inside out.

Photo: Whitney Cox

Oak Bar at The Plaza
It's no surprise that the opening scene of the Hitchcock thriller North by Northwest was filmed in the Oak Bar at The Plaza: An air of intrigue hangs around the thick wood paneling, as if every wall contains secret entrances and false bottoms. Meanwhile, the menu offers martinis that Walt Disney himself used to drink, and three large Everett Shinn paintings of Central Park occupy the walls. The open, spacious floor plan encourages a little bit of spying and a lot of gossip, but the best view of all is through the north side windows, looking out across the traffic of 59th Street and into Central Park, which contains as much mystery as your imagination allows.

Courtesy, Morgans Hotel Group

Bar 44 at the Royalton
For the redesign of the Royalton's Bar 44, which opened in 2007, the architectural design firm Roman and Willliams drew inspiration from Native American colonial culture and "20th-century Nairobi." Coming through a discreet entrance, visitors are greeted by a cast-iron fireplace, leather walls that reference Ernest Hemingway's favorite Paris watering hole, and a plethora of fur-based surfaces. But a tepee was never this swanky: angular, low-slung furniture mixes with brass and aluminum fixtures bathed in dim chestnut light. Fittingly, the bar's best drinks all include tequila: the Runway, with Don Julio Silver tequila, agave nectar syrup and blood orange puree, is a particularly appropriate beverage either before or after your Broadway show—or both.

Courtesy, The Algonquin Hotel

The Algonquin Hotel
During the 1920s, The Algonquin played host to the daily lunches of the Round Table—a group of literary wits such as Dorothy Parker, Edna Ferber, George S. Kaufman and Heywood Broun, who would profoundly influence American culture and comedy. The spirit of The Algonquin continues today: a painting in the restaurant commemorates the famous former denizens, their ghosts nearly visible in the Edwardian furniture. The smaller, intimate bar space on the west side of the lobby offers cabaret entertainment every Tuesday through Saturday, with two shows on weekends. The drinks are potent and delicious but almost beside the point; at The Algonquin, the experience has always been judged by the quality of the conversation.

Photo: Seth Smoot

Bemelmans at The Carlyle
This venerable Upper East Side institution, located in The Carlyle, is named in honor of Ludwig Bemelmans, the creator of the beloved Madeline children's books first published in 1939. Restored in 2002 by Thierry Despont, the bar captures the spirit of art deco—chocolate leather banquettes, nickel-trimmed glass tabletops and black granite bar. Meanwhile, the whimsical "Central Park" mural painted by Bemelmans does more than provide a Paris-between-the-wars background for the nightly piano and jazz entertainment; it successfully translates Bemelmans' genius into a three-dimensional space. Like an Old-Fashioned cocktail, Bemelmans is an unexpected collaboration of flavors that tastes exactly right.