New York's hotel bars a tonic for dreamers

March 13, 1994|By Jan Hoffman | Jan Hoffman,New York Times News Service

You know things have slumped to a new low when life becomes a serious impediment to lifestyle. Certainly there's nothing like a mortgage and a steady job with a mingy vacation plan to interfere with what I used to live for: travel.

Not so many years ago, this would have been an article about Airport Bars I Have Known and Loved.

But because my bank account now so clearly warns that next year will not be in the Maldives, I have taken up vicarious travel in a big way. Over the years, for example, I have become an !B aficionado of the great hotel bars of New York.

Most New Yorkers seek them out because they are plush and cozy, with a soupcon of luxury rarely to be found in a neighborhood pub. Even most out-of-towners will find them worth visiting.

What I particularly love about them is their very hotelness: You come upon people wafting through the lounges with the aura of their foreign lands.

Drinks ordered in accented English, then murmured patches in another language to a companion, followed inexplicably by peals of laughter. The lighting should be soothing, the music &r sufficiently moody, the potential for romance, for a dangerous liaison, should always hover, like an italicized question mark.

A bar should revere that most perfect of composite words: wanderlust.

A great hotel bar celebrates the now almost unaffordable glamour of travel, its eternal promise of adventure -- tomorrow I will see something I've never seen before. Anything may happen.

And so I sit in those overstuffed chairs, shamelessly eavesdropping, listening for accents and dramatic stories. A good hotel bar is always ripe with suggestion.

And irony, of course. Because in the heat of my traveling days, I could never afford to stay in hotels like these; indeed, having a drink in a New York hotel bar is truly a foreign experience.

But what is a local, particularly a New Yorker, doing hanging around tourists? It's important to remember that there are hotel bars for tourists and hotel bars for travelers (a distinction that, admittedly, remains quite fluid).

When I want to travel vicariously, I go to the latter, with the kind of clientele whose homes I can easily fantasize about renting for the first and last weekends of a six-week trip. One night at the Mark, for instance, I decided that a certain merry, well-dressed couple sitting two tables away had the ideal charming apartment in oh, say, Amsterdam, which they could readily let me use because they, after all, were out of town.

But the tourist hotel bars have their moments, too.

Indeed, sitting in a fabulous tourist bar like the Broadway Lounge at the Marriott Marquis, surrounded by people staring fixedly at subway maps, I can feel my smug confidence returning: I can dream that I am a New Yorker again, a resident in a world-class town that all these people want to visit.

Where to go in Manhattan? Of course, there are the Parises and Romes of hotel bars, grand standards like the Algonquin, the Oak Room at the Plaza, the Bull and Bear at the Waldorf-Astoria, the King Cole Room at the St. Regis and Harry's New York Bar at the Helmsley Palace Hotel. For the air-kissers among you, for those who relish watching Europeans who look just like ultra-stylish New Yorkers, there is always the Paramount or the Royalton.

Here are some less obvious ones, the Cincinnatis and Singapores of hotel bars. Some I bonded with, others I did not:

The Mark

(25 E. 77th St. [212] 879-1864.)

A lovely, hushed jewel box. Dark green walls with gold trim on the moldings, low lighting, a dozen tables, comfortable upholstered chairs, discreet corners, a beautiful velvet love seat, piped-in jazz standards. High-end champagne poured by the glass: Mumm Cordon Rouge. The all-day menu includes such ideal bar hors d'oeuvres as Thai chicken satay, quesadillas with shrimp and avocado or goat cheese and herbs, and slivers of roasted potatoes with caviar, chives and creme fraiche. The sort of place where you probably won't see anyone you know, but may see someone you recognize.

One night a waiter not only graciously abstained from addressing a friend and me as "ladies" (that unctuous term so often pronounced with a patronizing edge), but saved the love seat with the coffee table just for us. Sex and accents mingle in the air: Two people on a blind date met at the bar; a woman with a Scandinavian accent spoke heatedly to a young Englishman )) about rock and roll and space exploration. Oh mystery, oh aura! On another night, I counted four women in a row who walked in wearing cunning little hats, including one with a black netted veil across her face.

The Michelangelo

(152 W. 51st St. [212] 765-1900.)

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