In an old hotel in Manhattan under a marquee sign, stood dozens of 20-somethings in one straight line.
The Carlyle hotel’s Bemelmans Bar — an unchanged 1940s-era lounge known for its masterpiece Martinis, white-glove service and wall illustrations by the author of “Madeline,” Ludwig Bemelmans — is the latest victim of cool. Now, Gen Zers with money to burn are overwhelming the formerly buttoned-up bar each night.
Since the pandemic shutdown and its splashy reopening in May, old-time Upper East Siders, who used the piano bar as a surrogate living room, have bristled at the unwelcome changes. Most notable is the introduction of a bouncer wearing an earpiece who is every bit as gruff and disinterested as you’d find at a downtown fashion fête.
Brioni suits now mix with designer jeans and Balenciaga sneakers behind a velvet rope. Worse still, reservations have been eliminated in favor of an egalitarian first-come, first-served policy.
“It’s a catch-22: It’s great for their business, but they have to understand that people like me and the older people that used to like going there, won’t go now,” said uptown Dr. Marie Hayag, who identifies as Gen X. “I don’t want to be there with a bunch of 20-year-olds.”
“They don’t say it out loud, but there is a minimum for the tables now [due to high demand],” added Vinnie Cammarata, 47, the owner of Chuck’s Vintage on East 91st. He estimated the price of a table at a bottle of champagne — noting that he was seated almost instantly after agreeing to order one.
“It’s like a nightclub,” he said. “They want to sell tables. People pay a lot of money to stay at that hotel, so that they don’t have to deal with riffraff. It’s going to hurt the reputation of the hotel.”
On a recent Wednesday evening, Bemelmans was packed three-customers deep at the bar. The wait for a table was over an hour. The bar’s famous oversized Martinis sloshed as groups of Zoomers squeezed through the room to take selfies against Bemelmans’ famous illustrations. The bartender was forced to recheck the ID of a 23-year-old woman who looked more like a high-school student.
“It feels classic,” explained Stephanie Diaconu, 24, who works for Ralph Lauren’s marketing team, of her newfound love for the bar. She recently posted a selfie on Instagram while drinking a Martini at Bemelmans. “The artwork is nostalgic,” she said. “There is also a live pianist that brings the place to life.”
“This is the TikTok generation, and TikTok is obsessed with nostalgia and experiences. They don’t want to go to a bar and have a beer anymore. They want to go into the looking glass, and step into the past. They want to hear the American standards. They want to look at Madeline marching in line,” said Harriet Cohen, a divorce attorney in her 80s, who has been visiting the bar regularly for Martinis since the 1950s. “It’s almost cult like. They follow influencers who have identified the King Cole Bar, the Palm Court and the wonderful Bemelmans Bar as something you cannot miss.”
Cohen doesn’t blame them for their good taste but admits that she will be pulling strings with her friends at the hotel before her next visit to assure that “a special table is waiting for me.”
One frequent visitor of the Carlyle said that she has given up Bemelmans in favor of private clubs like Casa Cipriani downtown, where “you can count on the service.”
“Bemelmans is elegant, very upscale and I always would run into familiar faces — old friends that go back for decades, people from the Hamptons, the parents from my kids’ schools. There was always a degree of elegance and sophistication and people dressed impeccably,” said Carole Crist, an impact investor and former first lady of Florida. “[Now] unless there is a card you can show or a separate entrance, I just simply won’t. I don’t do lines.”
Socialites who used the bar for post-gala libations or for a private tête-à-tête set to tickled ivories are also nonplused by the new rules of engagement.
”I’m not going to come from the New York Botanical Garden’s Winter Wonderland Gala and wait on line for an hour in a ball gown,” said philanthropist Jean Shafiroff, who is in her 60s. “When you go to a place and you are a regular, maybe they can sneak you in. But if you’re in a ball gown, it’s very obvious that they’re trying to sneak you to the head of the line. It’s embarrassing.”
Other devotees of the intimate room worry that the new social media-fueled scene threatens the soul of the bar.
“Where’s the loyalty?” asked Elizabeth Hartman, a bar regular who is also in her 60s. “Where were they when the bar was empty? They were downtown.”
“And where are all the hookers?” added Hartman’s septuagenarian partner Dennis Romano, referring to the escorts who formerly worked the room. “The young people are bad for business. They want the masters of the universe.”
But the bar’s staff sees things differently. After a difficult year, a booming bar with cool cred means a healthy paycheck.
Asked if the bar had been taken over by young people, this 33-year-old reporter’s bartender said, “Yeah, it’s true, and that’s all right with me, and that’s exactly what you look like in my mind.”
“Look man,” he added. “I’m here for the reason, not the season.”
Other hotel insiders said that the generational change has been refreshing. Not only are the newcomers generally polite, they are less demanding and better tippers, they said.
“It’s a small venue with limited seating,” said an insider. “Entitled old f – – ks can shove it.”
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