Originally published in Travel + Leisure, June 2010
THE ONLY TRUE REQUIREMENT of a great hotel is that it have a decent bar somewhere on the premises. They could leave out the front desk, room service, even the beds; surely we’d all find spots at the bar to keep us safe and warm until morning.
Regarding the character of said bar, there are certain prerequisites. It should be intimate in scale, yet capacious enough that you can always find a seat. The television—if we must—should loom no larger than the choking instructions. The loudest sound shall be the shaking of ice. An excess of staff is actually a minus; hotel bars are not hotels. And for God’s sake, no bouncers. A bartender should be the only thing standing between you and a perfect Manhattan.
It’s clear why, in the days of empire, sunstroked and shell-shocked colonials took refuge in the paddle-fanned lobbies of grand hotels. How pleasant to view one’s strange new surroundings through the rosy bottom of a cordial glass! Now, as then, a good hotel bar is an oasis of civility, a place for the displaced to regroup and recuperate from a day of sightseeing or latter-day empire-building. That’s why the best of the breed offer both a sense of the world outside and a retreat from it. It needn’t have windows nor a door onto the street (some legendary bars are famously landlocked, and cozier for it), but it should have a palpable relation to the city beyond its walls, such that—even after four perfect Manhattans—one can still hazard a guess at one’s locale.
Regarding the crowd, the proper measure is key: three-fifths out-of-town guests (for novelty) to two-fifths nonguests (for local color), with a dash of resident weirdo (for zest). Tip the balance in locals’ favor and you’ve upset the fundamental contract of a hotel bar, which is that the guest is always, always the most important person in the room.
Years ago I occasioned the bar at the Warwick New York Hotel, not far from my office in Manhattan. There were nicer hotel bars, of course, some within blocks—the King Cole at the St. Regis, the Oak Bar at the Plaza, the 57 Bar at the Four Seasons. But there was liberation at the Warwick: you could relax here. In the real New York, one’s choice of venue was prescribed by age, income, fashion sense, and cheekbones. Hotel bars like the Warwick laid the Great Chain of Being on its side. This was democracy with a buzz on. Airline crews, dowagers in pearl-buttoned cardigans, Irish backpackers scarfing wasabi peas for the price of a $12 beer, and the occasional Yugoslav basketball team—all were welcome here, bad footwear be damned. I assume the Warwick had a door policy, though it was hardly exclusive. Some nights it felt like the Star Wars cantina with better lighting and a friendlier clientele. (People in hotel bars tend to be chattier than their brethren elsewhere, especially if they’re from Minnesota and just saw Billy Elliot.) And while it’s a thrill to be greeted at your local, there’s something about a bar where nobody knows your name. A hotel bar lets you be yourself by not having to be yourself.
More than anything, a drink at the Warwick made me feel like I was traveling. The place had all the iconography of an indeterminately foreign hotel: potted ferns; tasseled lamps; strange accents; overpriced gin. As the tumult of Sixth Avenue receded with the workday clamor, I could convince myself I was ensconced at the Taj in Bombay, the Oriental in Bangkok, or the Mount Nelson in Cape Town, resting up before my next foray.
For as long as travelers have roamed the earth there have been watering holes bent on liquoring them up. In Chaucer’s day every roadside inn had a tavern for the weary pilgrim, who after too many flagons could simply flop down on a pallet upstairs. (Which raises the question: Which came first, the tavern or the inn?) The hotel bar’s heyday, from the mid 19th century to the early 20th, saw two dominant archetypes. Europe gave the world the clubby grand-hotel saloon, which found its apogee in London at the Dorchester and the Savoy. The world gave back the exotic colonial gin joint—places like the Long Bar, at Singapore’s Raffles, and the more recent Patiala Peg, at New Delhi’s Imperial—which borrowed liberally from the European template while adding location-specific details (heliconia; etchings of elephants; extra quinine in the G&T’s).
The great American hotel bars of the 20th century took their cues from either the London model (favored in the Northeast and Midwest) or the tropical-colonial (a natural for the Sunbelt states), though the two more often overlapped in a tangle of palm fronds and a haze of cigar smoke. The rest of the world likewise conflated the two—which is why almost all hotel bars built before the 1990’s, from San Jose to Sydney, look pretty much the same.
At some point in our lifetime, however, lobby bars—like passenger jets—lost much of their glamour. The oasis of civility became a desultory rec room for sad-sack salesmen and braying conventioneers. Ian Schrager did his best to rescue the genre in the 1990’s, reinventing the lobby as nightclub. The result was an invasion of cynical sub-Schragers who threw a few cube stools into a backlit room and called it a trendy bar. At too many boutique hotels, lobbies have been effectively surrendered to drunk bachelorettes and guys with BlackBerry belt clips ordering apple-pie martinis—and not one of them staying at the hotel. (Remember the fundamental contract.) An actual guest has a better time holed up in his room with the mini-bar.
The problem with such places isn’t just the dessert-like cocktails or the paint-by-numbers design; it’s also that they look and feel as ephemeral as their ambient sound tracks, as transient as their fickle clientele. They don’t understand that a great hotel bar is not about music or furniture or even the drinks, but the implication of permanence: the comforting thought that while all these wayward souls might return to their faraway homes tomorrow, these bar stools will still be here 50 years hence. You can’t say that about the Luxx Lounge.
The classic hotel bars of yore have seen trends come and go like so many traveling salesmen. They know enough to pay them no heed. The King Cole poured $100,000 into restoring its famous mural, but didn’t do a thing to the bar, which looks as good as it always has—maybe even a little better, like Robert Redford’s eyes. Thankfully, the next generation of hotel bars has learned to eschew passing fads for a more timeless aesthetic. The bars at the Ace, Bowery, and Jane hotels, in New York, and the new Burritt Room, at the Crescent San Francisco, all harken back to the old-school models; with their club chairs and well-worn carpets, they look as if they’ve been around since Prohibition.
My all-time favorite hotel bar actually has been around since Prohibition. It’s in a hotel I’ve never stayed at, though I’ve never felt unwelcome there, and never needed a plus-one. The Veranda Bar hides in a lush courtyard behind L.A.’s Figueroa Hotel, a rambling 1925 Spanish-Moroccan pile with character to burn. Fronting a pool fringed with cactus and bougain-villea, the bar has that louche, vaguely seedy vibe that so many new hotels here try but fail to replicate, because they haven’t had decades to fade and decay.
The atmosphere is fantastic, as opposed to fabulous. And the crowd, like at the Warwick, is wholly unpredictable—a rarity among L.A. hotel bars, where the clientele is usually handpicked by doormen, such that they’ve all become velvet-roped sandboxes for the same 127 people. A recent night at the Fig, by contrast, brought out line cooks, downtown suits, Echo Park hipsters, Lakers fans (the Staples Center is across the street), and three off-duty mariachis. None of them could be confused for the beau monde. But under those pressed-tin Moroccan lanterns, in the quivering blue light reflected off the pool, everyone looked sensational. •