The Magic of New York Hotel Bars; the Classic Hotel Bar Isn't a Home Away from Home; It's Better

By Nazaryan, Alexander | Newsweek, July 24, 2015 | Go to article overview

The Magic of New York Hotel Bars; the Classic Hotel Bar Isn't a Home Away from Home; It's Better


Nazaryan, Alexander, Newsweek


Byline: Alexander Nazaryan

A trial lawyer was having a glass of wine with two companions inside the Regency Hotel, on a stretch of Park Avenue that is one of the last preserves of old money in Manhattan. It was February 2006. The bar was called The Library. While sitting there, the lawyer was approached by a radiant blonde who appeared to recognize him. They started flirting. It would be years before they stopped.

The lawyer was John Edwards, the North Carolina litigator turned U.S. senator; he was just beginning his second run for president. The woman was Rielle Hunter, who would become his campaign videographer. As his wife, Elizabeth Edwards fought and lost a battle against metastatic breast cancer, John Edwards and Hunter carried on an affair, eventually conceiving what the press would gleefully brand a "love child."

Given the immolation of Edwards's political career after the affair was made public, you could credibly say his downfall began when he and Hunter locked eyes in The Library. To many, the tryst neatly captured the venality of power, as well as the ancient tension between new lust and trusted love, which has crushed men far more principled than John Edwards.

To me, the affair represented the magic of hotel bars. How romantic to meet someone in a hotel bar, to close the gap of anonymity that modern hotels engender, with their thousands of heads in hundreds of beds, the pervasive whoosh of air conditioners and elevators, the only yearning common to all occupants a decent Wi-Fi connection. I imagine Edwards and Hunter both burnished by the glow of auburn light, warm from the bartender's generous pour, lost in the crowd's happy buzz. You can blame them for a lot, but you shouldn't blame them for that.

If an exculpation is in order, it is for the unimpeachable institution that is the hotel bar. At a good hotel bar, you can never quite be a regular, though you will never be anonymous, always wrapped in the catholic embrace of the hospitality business, perfectly sunny and comfortably impersonal. When left to my own devices, I might well find myself at the Waldorf Astoria's lobby bar, sipping on a manhattan, waiting for Frank Sinatra to slide onto the stool next to mine. It's not that I want to meet someone: In fact, I don't want to meet anyone at all. I want to be neither in the sardine-can crush of a club nor amidst the workaday regulars of the local pub, feigning a Cheers bonhomie. I want the gentle obscurity of a great hotel bar, where I can be just another New Yorker in a sea of Omahans and Parisians.

Related: A Guide to New York City's Top Hotel Bars

There are thousands of places in New York to drink and millions of frazzled New Yorkers to drink in them. There are dive bars (quickly disappearing), as well as wine bars where you can pretend to know the difference between a nebbiolo and sangiovese. There are hipster bars, gay bars, hipster gay bars, sports bars, tiki bars, ironic tiki bars, ironic wine bars, speakeasies, ironic speakeasies, faux speakeasies, Irish pubs, gay Irish pubs and even a few places where you can just have a drink without needing a doctoral degree in cultural studies to fully appreciate the experience.

The hotel bar occupies a special place in this crowded pantheon. A truly democratic institution, it has no natural constituency, nobody to question whether you belong. Because it must potentially make itself available to several hundred guests of disparate origins, cultures and tastes, the bar is unlikely to aspire to the kind of hyperexclusivity fostered by some of New York's finer drinkeries. Because, also, the hotel bar caters to people who do not spend their days monitoring the latest trends out of Brooklyn, they can presumably perfect the tried-and-true, instead of trying to ape the goat milk-and-rum punch of some avant-garde boite in West Bushwick.

Still, with several hundred hotel bars in New York City, one is assured of nothing and could easily find himself drinking in a sanitized "lounge" full of cosmo-gulping tourists from Palookaville. …

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