Food & Drink

The Definitive Guide to Classic 'Old New York' Bars

Kristin Hunt Published On 01/29/2016 Published On 01/29/2016
Courtesy of The St. Regis New York (edited)

“Old New York” means different things to different people. For some, it literally means whichever restaurants and bars have been open the longest. But for others, it means old-school places that capture a certain feel -- a Cole Porter on the playlist, customers in black tie, Art Deco-everything kind of feel. Those are the places we’re discussing here. Each has its own history, but, most importantly, they all have liquor. Get ready to get transported to the ‘20s.

Coutesy of the 21 Club

21 Club

Midtown West

New York is rife with “speakeasies” that opened in 2011, but 21 Club can truly claim the title. Prior to its official opening in 1930, the club survived Prohibition with a secret wine cellar and disappearing bar that, through a system of levers, actually disappeared when the feds came to raid 21. That’s the kind of ingenuity that makes a place famous, and sure enough, 21 Club has attracted many wealthy and elite customers since it’s gone legit -- including noted party animal Nancy Reagan. You’ll know you’ve arrived at the right spot when you spy the line of jockeys (all gifts from Vanderbilts and Mellons) out front.

Courtesy of The Carlyle, A Rosewood Hotel

Bemelmans at The Carlyle Hotel

Upper East Side

If it weren’t for all the alcohol, you could mistake Bemelmans for the world’s most lavish nursery. That’s because the walls and lampshades are covered with whimsical illustrations from Ludwig Bemelmans, the man behind Madeline. The bar now bills itself as “the only surviving Bemelmans commission open to the public,” but don’t come here with your kids on a Sunday afternoon. Instead, show up on Friday night in something sharp, saunter up to the black granite bar, order a single malt, and then gawk at the gold-leaf ceiling as the live jazz band plays on.

Flickr/Jazz Guy

Sardi's

Midtown West

For many, the draw of Sardi’s is eating a nice Italian dinner before heading off to see Hamilton. (Or, more realistically, that Gloria Estefan musical.) But you can rub elbows with Broadway vets at the bar located on the second floor of the restaurant, which opened its doors in 1927. Sadly the free cheese is gone, but the beloved bartenders in bowties are still there.

Courtesy of Sir Harry's

Sir Harry's at The Waldorf Astoria

Midtown East

Named for the British explorer Sir Harry Johnston, this Waldorf Astoria lounge is a bit of a trailblazer itself. Sir Harry’s is the supposed birthplace of drinks like the Rob Roy and the Waldorf Sunset (gin, orange juice, creme de cacao, grenadine) which appear in the hotel’s legendary Old Waldorf Astoria Bar Book. Enjoy one of those in an armchair, so you can take in all the elegant wall sconce action.

Flickr/Jazz Guy

The Blue Bar at The Algonquin Hotel

Midtown West

A bar that’s literally bathed in blue hues might not seem like the obvious choice for a “classic” New York experience. But this spot has a major advantage thanks to its home hotel’s associations with the famed literary gang of Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Harold Ross, George S. Kaufman, and co. -- collectively known as the Algonquin Round Table. Once upon a time, they lunched at the Algonquin every day, and while it wasn’t in the Blue Bar specifically, the place tries to keep their vibes alive with Al Hirschfeld drawings on the walls, old school tunes, and stiff Sidecars.

Flickr/a.has

The Campbell Apartment

Midtown East

Drinking gin in the corner of Grand Central Station is normally frowned upon, unless you’re doing it in the ritzy Campbell Apartment, located off the Vanderbilt Ave entrance. The bar itself is not old, but it was once the office of ‘20s mogul John Campbell and was restored twice, once in 1991, and again in 2006, to resemble that time. It's a fancy (as in, no T-shirts or Converse fancy) lounge with lots of rich mahogany and massive leaded glass windows held over from Mr. Campbell’s time.

Courtesy of The Champagne Bar

The Champagne Bar at The Plaza

Midtown West

Each bar in The Plaza is swanky in its own way, but if you want to feel like vintage aristocracy, head to the Champagne Bar. Remodeled to resemble the OG 1907 iteration, the Champagne Bar is supposedly the “most exclusive” of the hotel’s offerings. We’d buy it, based on the caviar service, bartenders in white jackets, and hot cameos by the Prince of Wales.

Courtesy of The St. Regis New York

King Cole Bar at St. Regis Hotel

Midtown East

Walk straight up to the bar at this St. Regis Hotel watering hole and you can stare down King Cole himself. The name comes from an enormous mural of that sovereign and his loyal subjects that sits behind the shelves of booze, and it sets the tone for this very regal cocktail lounge. King Cole Bar has all the pricey cognacs and champagnes you’d expect, along with six different Bloody Marys, for a very special reason. Management claims it invented the drink in 1934, only they sold it (and continue to sell it) as the Red Snapper, so as not to offend the posh clientele. Make sure to order accordingly.

Flickr/Jazz Guy

Grand Central Oyster Bar

Midtown East

Rejoice, Metro North commuters, because there are actually two classy old bars in Grand Central. Since 1913, people have been dining under the Oyster Bar’s glimmery vaunted ceilings. And while the restaurant is great, if you weave your way through the main dining area, you’ll stumble upon a backroom marked “saloon.” Blow through those saloon doors to the dark wood-paneled den, where you can drink cheap martinis, snack on oyster crackers, and eavesdrop on modern-day Don Drapers delaying their trips home to Ossining.

Flickr/Lauren

Russian Tea Room

Midtown West

Asking someone to meet at the Russian Tea Room on any movie or TV show set in New York is shorthand for, “I am a very fancy and important person.” (Evidence here and here.) It’s easy to see why, considering the chandeliers and gold everything in this 88-year-old establishment, originally founded by members of the Russian Imperial Ballet. The place has an afternoon tea that’s been drawing tourists for decades, but if you’re not into darjeeling, don’t fret. True to its roots, the Russian Team Room has an entire 36-item vodka menu with the option for specialty flights, plus a cocktail list featuring originals like the Rasputin.

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Kristin Hunt is a freelance writer for Thrillist, and dreams of being Dorothy Parker about once a week. Follow her at @kristin_hunt.

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1. King Cole Bar & Salon 2 E 55th St, New York, NY 10022 (Midtown West)

Tucked away in the St. Regis hotel, The King Cole Bar is full of warm décor and expertly mixed drinks.

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2. 21 Club 21 W 52nd St, New York, NY 10019 (Midtown)

Since 1930, The 21 Club has attracted celebrities and A-list clientele to its sophisticated dining room right by the Theatre District. It's also one of America's most famous speakeasies from the Prohibition era, with a disappearing bar and secret wine cellar that's now home to an award-winning wine selection.

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3. Bemelmans Bar 35 E 76th St, New York, NY 10021 (Upper East Side)

If it weren’t for all the alcohol, you could mistake Bemelmans for the world’s most lavish nursery. That’s because the walls and lampshades are covered with whimsical illustrations from Ludwig Bemelmans, the man behind Madeline. But don’t come here with your kids on a Sunday afternoon; instead, come on Friday, and grab a table on the floor or, if you can, a spot in one of the rich chocolate-brown banquets around the perimeter of the room and listen to live jazz and piano in the evenings. There’s a cover charge past 9pm on Sunday and Monday and 9:30pm Tuesday-Saturday, so be sure to get there early for a first-come-first-serve spot. The menu is all class, from fine wines to cocktails like the pisco sour and top-notch martinis. While you sip, tilt your head back to catch a glimpse of the 24-karat gold leaf-covered ceiling.

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4. Sardi's 234 W 44th St, New York, NY 10036 (Midtown West)

For over 90yrs, Sardi's has been serving the pre- and post- theater crowd in Times Square. This historic institution serves up classic, American fare, ranging from deli-esque eats like their chicken club, to more substantial mains such as jumbo lumb crab cakes or a sirloin steak.

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5. Sir Harry's 301 Park Ave, New York, NY 10022 (Midtown)

This lush and elegant bar room located within the famed Waldorf Astoria hotel doesn't mess around when it comes to cocktails. The supposed birthplace of the Rob Roy and the Waldorf Sunset (made with Tanqueray gin, fresh orange juice, white creme de cacao, grenadine, and maraschino cherry), this is a place where spirits are king and you're sure to experience some impeccable service.

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6. Blue Bar at The Algonquin Hotel 59 W 44th St, New York, NY 10036 (Midtown)

The Blue Bar is one of the more historically significant bars in NYC. Opened in 1933 following the demise of Prohibition, this bar seen the swinging 1960s' (the bar featured on Mad Men as one of protagonist Don Draper's favorite spots to grab a cocktail in the city), the crazy 1970s' and the powerful 1980s'. Renovated in 2012 the Blue Bar remains one of the best places in NYC to grab a drink.

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7. The Campbell Apartment 15 Vanderbilt Ave, New York, NY 10017 (Midtown East)

The Campbell Apartment, which was formerly the office for finance mogul John W. Campbell, has since been turned into a luxurious bar and lounge space in Grand Central Terminal. It boasts extensive interior woodwork, a lounge and a warm hearth as its centerpiece. If there's anywhere in Midtown to go and get your Mad Men on, this swanky spot would be it.

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8. The Champagne Bar at the Plaza Hotel 768 5th Ave, New York, NY 10019 (Midtown)

Lavish, luxe, and timeless-- these are three words we'd use to describe The Champagne Bar at the Plaza Hotel. You know you've made it when you can treat yourself to their famous caviar service and bubbly by the bottle.

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9. Grand Central Oyster Bar 89 E 42nd St, New York, NY 10017 (Midtown East)

Grand Central's landmark Oyster Bar has been around since 1913 and, despite losing business due to the decline of long-haul train travel, its reinvention around the mid-'70s revived it into what's now an award-winning American restaurant serving super-fresh, top-quality seafood. It also has an extensive wine list.

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10. Russian Tea Room 150 W 57th St, New York, NY 10019 (Midtown)

This opulent dining room and tea lounge is an NYC landmark, famed for feeding Broadway stars, city politicians, mobsters, and celebrities alike. Borscht, caviar, vodka, and tea (duh) are what's on the menu.

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