I visited one of the most iconic neighborhood bars in NYC after it reopened - here's what it was like
- Michelle Gross is a freelance writer based in New York.
- Recently, she spent a Friday night out at Bemelmans, the iconic bar at The Carlyle Hotel on the Upper East Side.
- Although reopened at only 50% capacity, Gross says the bar was bustling with music and a new drinks menu.
In a city like New York, there's no shortage of neighborhood
I recently spent a Friday night in late May at the iconic bar at The Carlyle, the Upper East Side hotel of choice for visiting celebrities and fashionable New Yorkers. Unlike most Friday nights over the past 14 months spent at home in my pajamas with my partner and two pugs, it's now a post-COVID New York City, where donning my signature white tuxedo and going out for drinks and a little live music on the town felt novel and - dare I say? - normal.
As much a New York City icon as it is a cultural touchstone, Bemelmans and the adjoining Café Carlyle have hosted everyone from John F. Kennedy and Judy Collins to Frank Sinatra over the years. There's no place quite like it anywhere on earth, and there's certainly no place that feels as quintessentially New York.
Currently operating at a 50% capacity, this is the first-time Bemelmans has enforced a strict reservation-only policy.
"We've never had to enforce reservations like this in the past, and for now this is the simplest way to control the crowd," Bemelmans' new bar manager Dimitrios Michalopoulos told me that evening. "It's been quite an adjustment, but this is the story for now."
As a friend and I arrived at the Carlyle for our reservation, I noticed a lot has changed since my last visit in pre-pandemic times.
Before you can even enter Bemelmans, or the adjoining Topkapi Palace inspired tea room called The Gallery, you are greeted in The Carlyle's foyer by a team of what looks like secret service agents in tuxedos, all of whom are equipped with earpieces to communicate with one another.
At check-in here, one member for each reservation is required to fill out a digital contact tracing form on an iPad. Once you make it past the check-in process, you're led to your table.
Each reservation at Bemelmans has a 90-minute time limit, and there's also a $15 per-person cover charge that's applied to your bar tab. At present, masks are mandated when you go to and from your table; however, once inside, we quickly notice that the policy is loosely enforced.
"Our aim is to lead by example here," Michalopoulos said, pointing out that all Bemelmans associates were wearing masks despite being vaccinated. "Our priority is to our guests and that means we'll keep our masks on for now."
All of the staff was masked up the entire time I was there, from the check in agents at the front to the servers and people behind the bar. Another big change I noticed is that people are no longer allowed to sit at the bar.
When we arrived at our table, we found a barcode menu waiting for us.
These barcodes seem ubiquitous now, however it felt jarring to see one in an environment as classical as Bemelmans.
With the help of Michalopoulos, the bar now features an entirely new menu that includes a signature cocktail list that pays homage to the guests, artists, and musicians who helped put this charming neighborhood bar on the map.
According to Michalopoulos, Bemelmans is largely known for its gin drinks and martinis. But one standout cocktail I tried was the JFK Daiquiri, a rum based drink inspired by one of the president's favorite cocktails.
Bemelmans has a large selection of signature martinis, cocktails, mocktails, beers, and wine.
"Our clientele has been coming here for our martini's for almost 75 years," Michalopoulos said.
Michalopoulos said he spent the better part of a month researching the history and stories for each and every person the cocktails on Bemelmans Specialty Cocktail list are named after.
Another standout drink was The Gillespie, which is made with Hudson Manhattan Rye, lime juice, rosemary ginger syrup, ginger beer, and egg white. It was named for a long time musician and entertainer at Bemelmans Bar, Chris Gillespie, who loved ginger, Michalopoulos told me.
"It was a lot of fun to honor the legacy of the people who used to come here and made this place so special," Michalopoulos told me. "Their legacy lives on, and I know Bemelmans' legacy will continue to live on long after, too."
The iconic piano serves as a major focal point of the bar's decor.
As I glanced around the room, and the sounds of people talking and live music on the piano played throughout our visit, I almost forgot what it was like in the before times at 100% occupancy.
Things have changed since my last visit to Bemelmans, but the magic that can be found in a night out here will always stay the same.
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