Young New Yorkers Discover Manhattan’s Classic Cocktail Bars

It was a sight that would shock Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the old patron of the Carlyle: a security team was deployed inside the hotel corridor to manage the crowds lining the elegant bar, the Bemelmans. It was early Friday afternoon. Way before the cocktail hour.

Security is a new twist on the handsome and distinctive bar, named after the author of the “Madeline” children’s book series, Ludwig Bemelmans, who also painted its walls when it first opened in the 1940s. Known for their pure martinis, dark leather banquettes and live piano music (standards and jazz), Director Demetrius Mikalopoulos said the Bemelmans have never had nightclub-level energy like this. “Line is a new phenomenon for us, something that started after Covid,” he said. “I tell people to come back later when we are less busy, but they don’t want to leave. They prefer to wait.”

Sometimes the line forms as early as 2 p.m., it’s a mix of regulars—older Upper East Siders in designer clothes or couples quietly celebrating an anniversary or birthday—and crowds of curious young men, dressed in jeans, hats, and leather jackets.

“The other day, a group of young girls asked me what cocktail I was drinking,” said Jennifer Cook, who manages communications for Carlisle. “It was a martini.”

Young customers take selfies (no flashes allowed) under the gold roof or in front of Steinway. They ask the servers where Meghan Markle and Prince Harry sat when they visited this fall.

“It’s a new audience, and we have to adapt to meet everyone’s needs,” said Mr. Michalopoulos.

Bemelmans isn’t the only old school venue in New York City that’s seeing a boom in young shepherds. Leo Capespisan, one of the managers, said the Palm Court at the Plaza is almost fully booked on weekends for afternoon tea, and many of the groups making these reservations are 20 years old. A few blocks away, young customers are ordering Red Snappers (signed by Bloody Mary) in droves at King Cole Bar, and earlier this month the 87-year-old Rainbow Room welcomed hundreds of alternative music fans to its Party of the Year album, which features the band Dry cleaning in English. It was launched by Rockefeller Center and Rough Trade, an independent brand, which recently moved its New York City store from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to 30 Rockefeller Plaza in Midtown.

Not everyone is fascinated by this youthful, new mid-century nostalgia in Manhattan. Daniel Kramer, a music fan who usually frequents places like Elsewhere or Brooklyn Steel, was at last week’s Rainbow Room event. He said that while it was fun, he didn’t have the great sense of other evenings, comparing the show to a wedding or bar mitzvah. “It’s always a pleasure to visit a new music venue,” he said, “but it just seems weird.” “It’s, like, right next to Levine’s Bakery and Faw Schwartz.”

But for many young people, the city’s traditional institutions that survived the pandemic now symbolize a rich history and resilient spirit. Before the coronavirus, Julia Berry, of San Antonio, Texas, was frequenting the trendy downtown cocktail lounges and Upper East Side sports bars when she came into town for work.

She is now seeking to visit more of the time-tested locations she has come across in documentaries and films focused on New York. “When you look around, many places close, and all these modern places appear,” she said. “It made me want to try something special while I still could.”

Mr. Michalopoulos, Director of Bemelmans, now spends most of his day making sure that regular employees can get a table and younger new clients are dressed appropriately. “They can’t be in ripped jeans and tank tops,” he said. “We have very established guests who expect some level of dress code enforcement.” He’s used to turning away the big groups. “We are a bistro,” he said.

However, Michalopoulos is doing his best to welcome the newcomers. After all, the reason bars like Bemelmans and King Cole have been around for so long is that they attract generation after generation. “We want young people to come to this old tavern,” he said. “I met them when it was their first time, and I’ve already seen many of them come back again.”

You will likely visit Cassandra De La Eumenia Bemelmans soon. After attending a dry cleaning show at the Rainbow Room, she said she’s expanded her bucket list to include visiting as many vintage bars as possible. Ms. De La Eumenia said being on the 65th floor of 30 Rock, with its art deco booming and skyline views, was a welcome change of pace from the trendy bars in Bushwick, Brooklyn. “It made me feel like, ‘Oh, that’s why I live in New York City. “

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