With the craft cocktail culture in full swing, it’s not unusual to come across a bar that looks like like it was ripped out of the 1940s. That old-timey style has made a comeback, but the difference with Bemelmans Bar is that it’s not an imitation: it’s a real deal relic. Actually, to call Bemelmans a relic is unfair, because that implies that it’s a historical fossil, when in reality Bemelmans is still lively, with full menus, live music, and a decadent Art Deco ambience that makes you feel pampered the moment you walk in.
Bemelmans is situated at The Carlyle, an opulent hotel that’s changed hands several times, but one that’s always maintained the same old money air. This is a major draw of Bemelmans: how over-the-top gorgeous it is. Every corner shows off. Guests can sit at “nickel-trimmed” glass tables or brown leather banquettes. The ceiling is coated with 24-karat gold leaf. The lighting is soft. And then, of course, there are the walls, walls that bear murals from famed author and illustrator, Ludwig Bemelmans, creator of the children’s series Madeline, and namesake of the bar. These murals depict animals in Central Park, which might be twee if they weren’t so well done (some even say when it comes to the rabbits, the mural’s are a little risque). Bemelmans created the paintings free of monetary charge. Instead, for a year and a half he and his family got to crash at The Carlyle. It seems like a smart move on his part, because while we can’t speak for what prices were like in the 40s, we know the hotel was always pure luxury. Today, many of the rooms at The Carlyle are the size of standard New York apartments, with fares to match.
The cocktails, of course, are equally extravagant, with names like Champagne Dream ($34) and Luxurious Sidecar ($23). It’s easy to see how some people would consider this cheesy, but somehow it’s not. In fact, Bemelmans has been lauded as a great hotel bar by collective critics who might otherwise roll their eyes at this and call it bourgeois. The drinks have even been endorsed by the man at the forefront of the craft cocktail revolution himself, Dale DeGroff, who told Thrillist, “I…like the elegance of the place. Any of the cocktails on the list are spectacular.” These spectacular cocktails are generally quite simple. As DeGroff put it, they’re elegant. Audrey Saunders, the “den mother” of the booze industry, who trained under DeGroff, also worked as the Beverage Director there.
The Maple Leaf is a perfect example of this uncomplicated perfection, comprised of rye, lemon juice, egg white, maple syrup, and bitters. The La Poire and Ginger is another fresh mixture made of Grey Goose La Poire, ginger liqueur, lemon juice, and simple syrup. Bemelmans is also known to make a great martini. These aren’t twenty ingredient drinks, and they’re not meant for the cocktail geek. Bemelmans is not the place that experiments with molecular mixology or the latest Made In New York product. Case in point: the list for available spirits is good, but concise. You won’t find a dozen craft brands, but you will spot mostly well-known elixirs. However, beyond rum and whiskey, there are several Cognacs and eau de vies to choose from. There’s also nicely-sized featured wine list, with by-the-bottle prices starting at $70, and a full wine list available upon request. We’d imagine the prices there might be intimidating.
And, of course, instead of a DJ, there is live music, featured both at Bemelmans at The Carlyle’s other eat, drink, and be (reservedly) merry, Café Carlyle, which is across the lobby from Bemelmans. The likes of these performers include Judy Collins and Woody Allen.
The Rosewood hotel group bought The Carlyle in 2001 and gave the hotel just a hint of TLC, but really kept the bar in its genuine state. When the place reopened in 2002, it was still pure Old New York, and as a matter of fact it still is. Perhaps that’s what keeps Bemelmans popular: antiquation. It’s a theme that would work against most bars amidst New York’s trend of modernization, but because Bemelmans isn’t pretending to be old school, it just is, it works.
All photos courtesy of The Carlyle, a Rosewood Hotel