WALKING INTO BEMELMANS Bar is like stepping through a portal to the past. Located inside the historic Carlyle Hotel in the heart of the Upper East Side, the bar has remained virtually unchanged since the 1940s, when it first opened. It offers a dreamy ascension into an old-school era of decadence and delight, something that’s increasingly difficult to find in Manhattan.
“Bemelmans is a tradition in New York,” says head bartender Luis Serrano, who has worked in various roles at the hotel for 33 years. “Everybody knows it and everybody loves it.”
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Over the decades, the legendary hotel has attracted an array of politicians, celebrities, musicians, actors, and socialites. Many presidents, including John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, have slept in its rooms. The Carlyle is where Jackie Kennedy first met Audrey Hepburn, where Kennedy lived with her children in the 10 months after her husband’s assassination, and also the place where her son, John F. Kennedy Jr., ate his last breakfast before the tragic plane crash that took his life. In 2014, Prince William and Kate Middleton chose to stay at the Carlyle during their inaugural trip to New York City, in part, because it was beloved by Princess Diana.
Tucked away on the first floor of the hotel, Bemelmans Bar offers a reprieve from the hustle and bustle of the city outside. It’s a place easy to get lost in, with walls that are covered in whimsical murals depicting animals frolicking around Central Park across four seasons, with the children’s book character Madeline featured among them. That’s because the murals were painted in 1947 by the Austrian-born artist Ludwig Bemelmans, who wrote and illustrated the “Madeline” children’s books, and for whom the bar is named. He received 18 months of free board for himself and his family in exchange for painting the then-new bar, which is the only remaining place where the artist’s work is available to the public.
It is a very generous drink. People are always surprised.
These days, bartenders dressed in pressed red suit jackets prance around the dark swanky bar delivering cocktails to guests, their masterpiece martinis among them. The recipe hasn’t changed much in 75 years. Serrano first learned how to make it decades ago, when he was promoted from barback to bartender. Legendary bartender Tommy Rowles, the only bartender with a longer tenure than Serrano — 53 years before his 2012 retirement — taught him how to make the bar’s signature martini, and Serrano still makes it the same way.
First, he rinses a glass with a drop of extra dry 1757 Vermouth di Torino, and then adds around four ounces of gin or vodka (depending on customer preference). He pours the mixture into a stainless-steel shaker with ice, but no shaking occurs. “All martinis have to be stirred, they cannot be shaken,” he emphasizes. Serrano gently stirs the drink for at least one minute, until the mixture is chilled all the way through and the metal shaker starts to frost.
The final concoction is strained into a chilled martini glass, which is garnished with three green olives. What remains in the shaker is then poured into a glass carafe and served with a trio of snacks (house made crispy cheddar crackers, potato chips, and mixed nuts) alongside the drink — a bonus martini of sorts. “It is a very generous drink,” says Serrano. “People are always surprised.”
One of the few places in Manhattan that still offers live jazzy piano music every night, Bemelmans starts filling up around 5:30 p.m. each evening. And while younger generations are quick to order espresso martinis, Serrano is certain they’ll someday be turned onto the classic rendition the bar is most known for. “Generations of New Yorkers continue to uphold the tradition,” says the seasoned bartender.
Classic Martini at Bemelmans Bar
- 5 oz gin (or vodka)
- One drop of vermouth
- In a shaker filled with ice, stir gently (so as not to release the botanical oils) until icy cold — ultradry and stirred in the traditional way is how it’s done at Bemelmans.
- Strain half into the martini glass and the other half into a sidecar placed in shaved ice.
- Garnish with a lemon twist (or olives) and enjoy!
Shelby Vittek Writer
Shelby Vittek is the editor of Modern Farmer and writes about food, wine, and drinks for Wine Enthusiast, VinePair, New Jersey Monthly, and elsewhere.
Grant Cornett Photographer
Grant Cornett is a photographer and director based in upstate New York. He likes to take pictures of pristine detritus and austere moments.