Behind the Bar: Bemelmans at The Carlyle Hotel

Behind the Bar: Bemelmans at The Carlyle Hotel

I like to dip my toes into lots of things. I have varied passions and diverse interests. However, there are some things that, for me, are always en vogue: fine hotels and good martinis. I was lucky enough to get to go to The Carlyle Hotel and bartend at their legendary Bemelmans Bar.

When you walk into The Carlyle Hotel on the corner of East 76th Street and Madison Avenue, you are graced by a kind of calm. Running in from an unusually chilly downpour on a June day, I was immediately greeted by the bellmen. They stand under the famed scalloped awning as bastions of tradition and sophistication. I immediately felt the chaos of New York City in a rain storm subside as I entered the hushed atmosphere. The only sound was the click of my heels on the marble floor. I could smell the scent of peonies lingering in the air and I was happy to have escaped the madness of downtown and entered into a timeless world. 

The Carlyle has sat on this corner for just shy of a century. It is a legendary and unique position on which it operates. Like a grand dame of the Upper East Side, it is not one to spill its secrets to the world. But it does have many.

Built just after the stock market crash of 1929, it was designed by architects Sylvan Bien and Harry M. Prince as a residential hotel. But after the boom of the Second World War and under new stewardship, The Carlyle made it’s mark as one of the most sophisticated hotel destinations in the world. 

Presidents, royals and celebrities alike have kicked off their shoes in the suites of The Carlyle and though it may not be an André Balazs property or house a night club, The Carlyle has a long standing tradition of glamour and luxury. A hotel which many have called home over the years.

This past winter, The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge followed in Princess Diana’s footsteps and called The Carlyle home during their visit to the states. 

Just last month, super models Gigi Hadid and Karlie Kloss got ready at The Carlyle for the Met Gala.

If one thing is true about the best and classic hotels of the world, (The Savoy, The Adlon and the Ritz in Paris to name a few), they all have mastered the art of the hotel bar. 

Bemelmans Bar at The Carlyle is not only a shining example of the hotel bar but an New York institution all its self. 

The room is dark and intimate. When you step through the doors of Bemelmans, it’s as if, for a moment, you are transported back in time. The black piano is surrounded by dark leather banquets and a long granite bar which has been serving up drinks for New York’s elite since the 1930s. 

The bar is named for Ludwig Bemelmans, the artist and author most commonly known for the Madeline series, whose murals decorate the walls. The artist’s renderings of a whimsical scenes in Central Park still adorn the room. Rather than be paid for his work, he exchanged it for a year and a half of accommodations at the hotel. Today, his murals here are his last surviving commission still open to the public. 

After entering, I was greeted by Lori. One of the famously clad-in-red who resides behind the bar, Lori was nice enough to give me a lesson on Bemelmans’ most sought after libations. 

Lori is the first woman bartender to ever serve drinks from behind the bar at Bemelmans. Her tenure started as another Bemelmans legend’s came to a close. Tommy, who left two years ago, had been serving up whiskey smashes and sazeracs for 54 years at the bar. The second patron Tommy ever served at the bar was President Eisenhower during his time in office. 

In fact, since President Truman first visited The Carlyle in 1948, every subsequent President has visited the hotel. During the Kennedy administration, The Carlyle was dubbed “the New York White House” because of the President’s frequent visits to his apartment on the 34th floor. Even after his assassination, Jackie Onassis spent many nights at The Carlyle with her two children. Sadly, The Carlyle was the last place John F. Kennedy Jr. ate breakfast before his doomed flight to Martha’s Vineyard.

Lori tells stories from the bar’s canon but says that the one thing that separates Bemelmans from all other bars is the intimacy. Even from behind the bar, she and her predecessors have met strangers who have confided in them. Conversation flows in the small room. And so does the music. 

Bemelmans is known for its nightly jazz performances. Lori’s favorite part about the music at Bemelmans is that it loosens up a formal crowd, she says. By the end of the night people are dancing with their arms around one another for no other reason than that they are intoxicated by the drinks and the melodies. The David Budway Trio, a regular performer at Bemelmans, always ends with Beatles songs, which gets even the stiffest of patrons swaying to the music. The tradition comes from the time that David Budway was playing a Beatles song and in walked Paul Mccartney! It’s a tradition that frequent hotel guest Mccartney supports and he will often take the piano himself to play other musicians scores under the dim lights of the bar. (Stella Mccartney is also a hotel regular.)

But, if the murals, the music or the history of the bar have not enticed you enough, then come for the cocktails. 

For my first foray in bartending, Lori taught me how Bemelmans makes its classic cocktails - the two that are requested the most here at Bemelmans: the Manhattan and the Martini.

A martini drinker myself, I decided to start with that. There is an ongoing debate in the martini community. Traditionally, the martini was made with gin but since as early as the 1960s people began to request it be made with vodka. I asked Lori her thoughts and she said while she prefers a gin martini, most people prefer vodka these days (like me). She will ask those imbibing on the classic cocktail which they prefer but a lot of newer bars these days assume you want vodka. The older bars and especially those in Europe (specifically London) assume you want gin. It is a debate that martini purists take very seriously. 

I like my martinis dirty and on the dry side. That means that I like only a small amount of vermouth. Martini drinkers have to specify whether they like their martinis “dry,” “wet,” or “perfect”. Dry martinis only have a small amount of vermouth (which sweetens and dilutes the gin or vodka), while wet martinis have more vermouth. A perfect martini should have equal parts vermouth and gin or vodka.

Though there are several variations of martinis, I like mine dirty (with olive juice). Some like it with a twist or straight up. 

After the spirits and olive juice are combined in a glass of ice, we transfer them into a classic martini shaker. I was excited to shake up that martini but Lori stopped me. “We don’t shake martinis at Bemelmans,” she said. They stir their martinis, she told me, as most of the classic bars do. The directive, “shaken not stirred,” that so many of us know from James Bond actually goes against tradition. Not only does shaking a martini dilute it, but it can “bruise” the gin and other spirits. Lori instructed me to stir about 30 times or until my fingers stuck to the metal from the frosty condensation. 

I poured the martini into the frosted glass and poured the remaining drink into a sidecar (on ice), which Lori says keeps your martini cold so you can pour the remainder of your drink at your leisure. 

Next, I tried my hand at the Manhattan. To start, Lori showed me one of Bemelmans’ signatures - using brandied cherries at the bottom of the glass. 

Next I combined Makers Mark, three drops of bitters and their secret weapon: sweet vermouth by Carpano Antica Formula 1786. Lori says this is what sets Bemelmans’ manhattans apart from all others. 

After stirring again, I poured the liquid into the glass and its sidecar.

My friend Rachel (and my first official patron) and I toasted to classic cocktails and The Carlyle and sipped my creations. What a treat to have at lunchtime!

Lori works in a place full of tradition but she is evidence that even somewhere so steeped in rituals can adapt to the times. Even the bar menu these days, curated by Audrey Saunders, includes some very inventive cocktails. But, it is still a place where you can sink into the plush leather and feel as though you are surrounded by decades of dalliances, deep discussion and even dancing. 

Bemelmans is one of the best places to experience Old New York. Though I love living downtown, I am a part time enthusiast for the Upper East Side, with its long standing traditions (and clean streets). It is well worth the trip uptown to experience Bemelmans. And, for a part time cocktail enthusiast, it was the ideal place to perfect cocktails that I will be able to serve (properly) for the rest of my life. 


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