Wednesday, January 12, 2011

King Cole Bar at the St. Regis Hotel NYC

A prosperous and thriving dinosaur, the King Cole Bar at the St. Regis upholds the old gold standard of grand hotel bar service even though its clientele is often an odd mixture of well-groomed & haute-coutured hotel guests and casual tourists in gym shoes and shorts who are bound to squabble about the price of the drinks here. Since i moved to NYC in 1995, I started a weekend habit of dropping by at quiet hours (2:30 pm on Saturday) and savored the hushed atmosphere and excellent cocktails served by an always discrete but convivial bartender who made your drink your way with no resistance. On more recent visits, the hushed early quiet has vanished. There always seems to be a full house, all bar stools and tables taken and a noise level that is off the decibel chart.
A lot has happened in the past 15 years....cell phone ringtones blaring from all the seats in the house, the serving of a full menu in the bar, making the table turnover non-existent, the pulling up of extra chairs from a storage room that don't match the decor to accomodate larger groups who are dining here rather than sipping drinks and having quiet conversation which is the old raison d'etre of a hotel bar.
I think the food service is the main culprit. God knows bars ought to be making enough from the booze, but it seems food service is de rigeur everywhere and frankly it completely spoils the experience for a couple or foursome who simply want to sip cocktails and converse in civilized tones.  The bar waiters here remain expert at traversing a small space crowded with diners and drinkers, both seated and standing, with classic drinks in the correct cocktail glasses (correct size and shape, that is, according to a classic standard) balanced ably on small round trays. The trouble is too often they are also slinging hash at tiny tables meant for drinks and nibbles only to loud patrons who continue to ask for this and that addition to their meal, glasses of water and wine, and asking greedily for dessert.

This is a grand mistake. This bar is small and intimate, well-lit, still has not succumbed to large screen televisions (muted or not). There ought to be one place left in Manhattan where you can escape the deplorable norm. The King Cole Bar should be a temple dedicated to cocktail service. It should refuse to serve anything more than assorted nuts and chips to patrons who want some hardier fare with their licquor. They do their best to uphold a tradition of bartending and mix excellent quality cocktails and their servers are well supervised and trained and have just the right tone and personality for the job but this effort is being wasted in the morass of food service and noisy overcrowded activity that makes it impossible at peak times to hear anything anyone is saying with the exception of some loud goon shouting from across the room.

The King Cole Bar is a victim of its own success. The death knell came when some bean-counter or hotel management dunderhead insisted on food service in the bar as a moneymaker.  It's a shame because this legendary bar still has personnel who know the difference between the ideal and the all too real.

These calm, voluptuous photographs of the bar belie everything I said above but be persuaded that I am not making this up. I regret more than anyone the hard times on which the King Cole has fallen. I hope they wake up before they install a breakfast buffet.
The Famous Maxfield Parish  mural with its infamous "secret"

The Good Old Days from a 1950s Life ad

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