Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Bemelmans Bar

Cocktails and kids’ books. These items, though both treats in their own right, don’t typically go together. Yet, in one classic Upper East Side institution, the two go hand in hand, like vodka and tonic, or green eggs and ham.

Founded in 1930 on 76th Street at Madison Avenue, The Carlyle Hotel made history as the destination of various Old Hollywood celebrities, socialites, and politicians, most notably President John F. Kennedy, who owned an apartment on the tenth floor. And, in The Carlyle, artist Ludwig Bemelmans made history when he was commissioned to paint large-scale murals on the walls of what has since become known as the Bemelmans Bar.

If Bemelmans’ name is not immediately familiar, the children’s book character he created certainly is. Madeline, the smallest of twelve young girls in a Paris boarding school, is best known for her broad yellow hat, blue dress, and vivacious spirit. The heroine of a series of picture books, the first of which was published in 1939, Madeline is Bemelmans’ most well-known creation. As such, it is only natural that she is featured, in Bemelmans’ signature style, at the Bemelmans Bar.

Tucked away into a corner of The Carlyle’s well-polished lobby, the Bemelmans Bar immediately brings visitors back to the 1930s. Upon entering the plush, dimly-lit lounge, one is greeted by a baby grand piano spilling jazz over a long, black granite bar and a generous smattering of glass-topped tables surrounded by a rich leather banquette and topped with a 24-karat gold leaf ceiling. Yet most noticeable are Bemelmans’ murals, his only surviving commission open to the public, which also happens to be one that he refused payment for. Instead, he created the murals in exchange for a year-and-a-half of rent-free residency in The Carlyle for himself and his family. The Carlyle certainly made out well in that deal.

Featuring Madeline and her boarding-school mates, lined up as on the cover of the original book, plus picnicking rabbits and other fanciful Central Park scenes, Bemelmans’ murals are a pleasure to share a drink over. When my friend Ruth and I arrived at the bar the other night, we were sorry to see that there were other people there, as we wanted to walk around the room and examine every inch of Bemelmans’ artwork. But, sure that other guests wouldn’t appreciate having us leaning over their romantically-lit tabletops, we refrained and examined the drink menu instead.

With names like the Agave Gingerita, the Gin-Gin Mule, Pear-adise, and The Old Cuban, the Bemelmans cocktails were as classy as the establishment itself. Ruth and I both chose the Carlyle Punch, made with a secret recipe that changes everyday. Unsure what exactly we had ordered, we were pleased when the very gentlemanly bartender presented us with two tall, tropical-looking drinks that were fruity, flavorful—and filled with generous amounts of liquor. And we were doubly impressed when he gave us a heaping portion of very delicious chips and nuts.

Most impressive, however, was not the elegant décor, the live jazz-era soundtrack, or the tasty drinks. The best part of the Bemelmans Bar was the handiwork of Bemelmans himself.

And, of course, Madeline.

4 comments: said...

Great write up. We added a link;
Thank you!

Anonymous said...

in complete agreement! An Upper East Side gem. Just magical.

Aside from the music, the artwork, the unique cocktails, the staff and service are top notch too! They make everyone feel as though they are celebrities.

I was there this weekend and will never forget it.

Anonymous said...

In an era where classic cocktail revival is the height of fashion, one would think the Carlyle's bar would own the genre. Alas, it does not. Drinks are splashed together with abandon, rather than measure precision. At $20 per cocktail (plus the hidden $15 per person cover charge), three drinks for a couple will run you upward of $100.
Suffice it to say- people in the know, know better than to go here.

Anonymous said...

Nonsense. People in the know know Bemelmens is a don't miss. Will the cocktails be the finest you've ever tasted? Perhaps not, but every one I've had there was very tasty. It is very pricey, but that's fine -- that just makes it a special-occasion kind of place, and we all need those in our lives. Anyone who wants to experience NYC as it once was will love Bemelmens; those who are too busy watching the bartender like a hawk to make sure their drinks are made to their oh-so-fussy specifications should perhaps go elsewhere. Me, I hope I don't live to see the day that I focus on whether my cocktail has two drops of vermouth, not three, in it and miss out on the unmatched atmosphere that Bemelmens offerse. Oh, and the cover charge? Easily avoided, if you go early. And the musicians are good enough to warrant the charge, in any case.