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Why Gen Z is flocking to New York’s old-school hotels and bars

Sometimes the line forms as early as 2 p.m. It’s a mix of regulars — older Upper East Siders in tailored clothes or couples quietly celebrating an anniversary or a birthday — and throngs of curious young people, dressed in jeans, beanies and leather jackets.

By: New York Times |
Updated: November 28, 2021 12:06:45 pm
United Kingdom, UK, COVID-19, UK LockdownTier one is likely to see people expected to follow the "rule of six" on gatherings and maintain social distancing. Tier two could ban households from mixing in homes, gardens, pubs, bars or restaurants. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

Written by Alyson Krueger

It was a scene that would have shocked Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, a longtime patron of the Carlyle: A security team had been posted inside the hotel’s corridor to manage the crowds lining up for its elegant bar, Bemelmans. It was early Friday afternoon, way before cocktail hour.

The security is a new development for the handsome, distinguished bar, named for 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 its purist martinis, dark leather banquettes and live piano music (standards, jazz), Bemelmans has never had nightclub-level energy like this, said Dimitrios Michalopoulos, the manager. “The 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 would rather wait.”

Sometimes the line forms as early as 2 p.m. It’s a mix of regulars — older Upper East Siders in tailored clothes or couples quietly celebrating an anniversary or a birthday — and throngs of curious young people, dressed in jeans, beanies and leather jackets.

“The other day a group of young girls asked me what cocktail I was drinking,” said Jennifer Cooke, who runs communications for the Carlyle. “It was a martini.”

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

“It’s a new crowd, and we have to adjust to meet everyone’s needs,” Michalopoulos said.

Bemelmans is not the only old-school venue in New York City experiencing a surge in young patrons. The Palm Court at the Plaza Hotel is almost completely booked on the weekends for its afternoon tea, and many of the groups making those reservations are 20-somethings, said Leo Capispisan, a manager. A few blocks away, young customers are ordering Red Snappers (its signature Bloody Mary) in droves at the King Cole Bar, and earlier this month the 87-year-old Rainbow Room welcomed hundreds of alternative music fans for an album-of-the-year party featuring English post-punk band Dry Cleaning. It was thrown by Rockefeller Center and Rough Trade, an independent label, which had recently relocated its New York City store from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to 30 Rockefeller Plaza in midtown.

Not everyone is impressed with this newfound youth nostalgia for midcentury Manhattan. Daniel Kramer, a music fan who usually frequents venues like Elsewhere or Brooklyn Steel, was at last week’s Rainbow Room event. While fun, it didn’t have the grungy, cool feel of other evenings, he said, comparing the show to a wedding or a bar mitzvah. “I am always happy to check out a new music venue, but this felt weird,” he said. “It’s, like, next to a Levain Bakery and FAO Schwarz.”

But for many young people, the traditional institutions of the city that survived the pandemic now symbolize a rich history and resilient spirit. Before the coronavirus, Julia Berry, of San Antonio, Texas, would frequent trendy cocktail lounges downtown and sports bars on the Upper East Side when she came to the city on business.

Now she’s making it a point to visit more time-tested spots she’s learned about in New York-centric documentary films and movies. “When you look around, so many places are closing, and all these modern places are popping up,” she said. “It made me want to experience something special while I still can.”

Michalopoulos now spends much of his day making sure his regulars can get a table and the newer, younger customers are dressed appropriately. “They can’t be in ripped jeans and tank tops,” he said. “We have very high established guests who expect some level of dress code enforcement.” He’s gotten used to turning away large groups. “We are a small bar,” he said.

Still, Michalopoulos makes an effort to welcome the newcomers. After all, the reason bars like Bemelmans and King Cole have survived for so long is they appeal to generation after generation. “We want young people to come to this old bar,” he said. “I meet them when it is their first time, and I’ve already seen many come back again.”

Cassandra De La Eumenia will probably visit Bemelmans soon. After attending the Dry Cleaning show at the Rainbow Room, she said she had expanded her bucket list to include visiting as many retro bars as possible. Being on the 65th floor of 30 Rock, with its art deco flourishes and skyline views, was a welcome change of pace from the trendy bars of Bushwick, Brooklyn, De La Eumenia said. “It made me feel like, ‘Oh, this is why I live in New York City.’”

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