Lee Tulloch takes us on an Old Fashioned tour of Manhattan’s classic cocktail bars.
Dec 21, 2022 4:00am
In the very first scene of Mad Men, the 1960s-era drama series which premiered in 2007, the cool and unknowable lead character, ad man Don Draper, sits at a table in a corner of a bar working on his pitch for Lucky Strike cigarettes. The room is noisy and packed with men in suits, downing a Martini or three before they go home to their wives. Cocktail waiters in white cropped jackets and black bowties move among the tables. As the camera pans to the bar, we see that every person seated around it is smoking furiously, even the women, while they clinch long stemmed Martini glasses or tumblers of hard liquor.
My favourite was Chumley’s, an old speakeasy at 86 Bedford Street in Greenwich Village, which had two entrances – one at the back for quick exits during Prohibition when the cops raided. The colloquial term “86-d” comes from the drinkers who were interrupted by the raid and had to flee via 86 Bedford into the street. The bar was subterranean and dark, burnished, with walls covered in old photos and the patina of history. The entrance on Barrow Street was so discreet, I usually had to walk up and down the street many times before I found it.
Much more salubrious was the legendary 21 Club on West 49th Street, famous for the cast iron jockeys on its veranda which had been donated by wealthy members. The club cellared the private wine collections of many celebrities, including Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren and Richard Nixon. The ceiling of the Bar Room was cluttered with antique toys and sporting memorabilia, and it felt very old school. Even in 2019 men were required to wear jackets.
The last time I was upstairs at Sardi’s, drinking at the bar with a friend, a woman came in and excitedly announced she’d just won the lottery. In high spirits, she shouted the bar (just two of us) a round of drinks. We asked her what she would do with her winnings. She said she hadn’t decided yet. We chatted for a while, dreaming up all sorts of indulgences. A round-the-world cruise, a country house?
My friend finally had the courage to ask her how much she had won. She beamed at us. “Three hundred dollars!” she said gaily.
Five classic Manhattan bars to visit
Restaurateur Vincent Sardi opened his eponymous restaurant in its current theatre district location in 1927. As a gimmick, he hired Russian émigré Alex Gard to draw caricatures of its showbiz customers, who congregated there before and after the theatre. There are an estimated 1200 of these whimsical portraits covering the deep red walls and they’re still a huge drawcard for visitors. Happily, when Sardi’s survived the shutdown of Broadway during the pandemic its slightly tired interiors had a restoration. Head for the quieter second-floor bar where the legendary Joe Petrsoric has poured Martinis since 1972.
234 West 44th Street
The modern, spicy version of the Bloody Mary was supposedly first created at this classic drinking spot, which is tucked away in the Astor Court restaurant in the St Regis New York. It’s famous for the beautiful mural by Maxfield Parrish across the wall behind the bar, which was commissioned in 1906 by Jacob Astor for the Knickerbocker Hotel and installed in the St Regis in 1932. While King Cole and his medieval court cavort in front of you, try a Red Snapper, which is the newish name for the bar’s original Bloody Mary.
The St Regis New York, 2 East 55th Street
This bar feels very clandestine, hidden away in the southwest corner of Grand Central Station, far from the frenzy of the grand concourse. In 1923 the series of rooms was converted into the offices of railroad executive John W Campbell. In 2016 it was lavishly revamped, retaining landmark architectural details such as the tall leaded glass windows and 25-foot hand-painted ceilings. The opulent, clubby bar also connects to the Palm Court Lounge and Terrace. It’s dark, swank and just the place for a secret business deal, if you’re trying to offload your agency, perhaps. Try the Campbell Dirty Martini.
15 Vanderbilt Ave, between 42nd and 43rd Streets
This quintessential supper club in The Carlyle Hotel is just about everyone’s favourite sophisticated uptown joint. It’s named for Ludwig Bemelmans, the writer and illustrator of the much-loved Madeline children’s books, who was commissioned in 1947 to paint fanciful murals, featuring roller-skating elephants and cigar-smoking bunnies, on the walls. Cosy, with chocolate leather banquettes and a tinkling grand piano often usurped by showbiz luminaries, it’s noisy, packed to the gills and utterly Manhattan. Now that it has been discovered by a younger generation, there’s a bouncer on the door some nights. Cover charges may apply.
The Carlyle Hotel, 35 East 76th Street
This little brick house is a holdout among the skyscrapers of Midtown. As authentic as it gets, the saloon promotes itself as “virtually unchanged since 1884”. In an early scene in Mad Men, Peggy does the twist amid its checked-cloth tables. Nat King Cole loved the burgers and they’re still good. It was the preferred watering hole of Frank Sinatra who had a permanent “hold” on table 20. Jackie O went there every weekend for brunch. Richard Harris would drop in for his “usual” – six double vodkas. There are several offshoots, but there’s nothing like the original.
915 Third Ave at 55th Street