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It takes me 23 minutes to walk to the American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts property Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace from my Budapest apartment, but I’ve only been to its new lobby bar, MÚZSA, once. That’s because it opened in October, in the midst of escalating COVID-19 cases here, and I am reluctant to linger indoors. But one evening, when it was still early and quiet, I did pop in to ogle the art nouveau décor, quickly down an apricot-hued tipple, and have a photo taken to promote my new book, Behind the Bar: 50 Cocktail Recipes From the World’s Most Iconic Hotels, published by Hardie Grant.
During that short, dreamy spell, seated high on a stool, a rarity in a year that has largely unfolded while camped out on a sofa, I realized just how terribly I missed imbibing in hotels. I yearn for my cramped, cozy watering holes and the glasses of Hungarian red Kadarka wine unceremoniously handed to me, too, but it’s the hotel bar, thronged with mysterious strangers and rife with possibility, where I want to be most.
Originally, I intended for this book to simply be an illustrated love letter to the classy bars—some of them historic, some of them legends in waiting—that help make hotels around the globe so intoxicating to guests. Now, as the pandemic continues to trample our intensifying wanderlust, the book’s arrival seems especially well timed, plunging us into colorful daydreams when we need them most.
Every bar has the power to transport, but the hotel bar, so closely entwined with the notion of boundless travel, promises an escapism like no other. These three esteemed cocktail lairs, featured in my book, certainly do the trick.
The Connaught Bar
For many a Connaught Bar customer, it is the luxurious image of a trolley, elegantly weaving across the floor, that forever burns in their mind. From this cart, a divine Martini will soon be prepared tableside by the meticulously trained staff, an intimate, sensory bar ritual that is hard to surpass. At the annual World’s 50 Best Bars awards in November, Connaught Bar, at the Connaught Hotel in London, an American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts property, was deservedly named the 2020 winner. Although it only opened in 2008, as part of the hotel’s significant restoration, its artful presence feels like an organic addition to the late 19th-century Mayfair grande dame. Even before taking a gander at the cocktail list, it is easy to lose oneself in the luminous, cubism-inspired room designed by David Collins Studio, its melange of pastels melding with shimmering silver panels. Then there is the service, genial yet focused. What one orders is far less important—although bypassing one of those dry Martinis is a regrettable decision—than the bartender’s genteel manner. There is a dignified aura that clings to Connaught Bar, an atmosphere that is also evident at the Connaught Hotel’s sister properties, the nearby Claridge’s—a must if the mood calls for an upscale bar crawl—and the Berkeley, in Knightsbridge. Post-nightcap, on the way out of the hotel, the lobby’s gorgeous carved wood staircase is a fittingly old-fashioned farewell.
During the five years that l have lived abroad, a nostalgia for New York surfaces only sporadically. Over the course of the pandemic, however, I think about the city constantly, especially all the places I wish I had spent more time lingering in. One of them is Bemelmans, at the Carlyle, A Rosewood Hotel and an American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts property, the sight of which—in Sofia Coppola’s recent film On the Rocks—caused me to cry. I wanted to be there, burnished Sidecar in hand, in a bar that is always tinged in magic. There is so much warmth that emanates from Bemelmans—the fantastical murals that wrap the walls in a visual fairy tale, the petite lamps that grace the tables, the attentive bartenders, and the clientele, dazzling Upper East Side devotees and visitors alike, who fill it with cheer and piano music. It’s the fanciest neighborhood bar I’ve ever been to. The first time I ever entered the hallowed Bemelmans, Audrey Saunders, best known for the pioneering, and now sadly shuttered, Pegu Club, still worked there, and it was my good fortune that she was behind the bar that night. Shortly after that visit, a once predictable New York bar scene was shaken up by craft-cocktail evangelists. Years later, Bemelmans still has the air of a posh party that’s been pulsing for decades, a buoyant reminder that the good old days haven’t entirely faded away.
The Singapore Sling, one of the most famous cocktails to have been created in a hotel, is a sweet and terrible drink—at least that’s what I heard from countless booze industry folks upon their return from jaunts to Asia. When I finally made it to Singapore and ensconced myself in Long Bar at American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts property Raffles, where Ngiam Tong Boon supposedly invented the signature pink libation in 1915, ordering a Singapore Sling, then, was more an obligation to history than the hope of boozy transcendence. As I had been warned, it was cloying and forgettable, and I wondered if my fellow Singapore Sling-sipping patrons felt duped by their touristy inclinations. Still, I adored Long Bar’s s setting, a cooling salvation from Singapore’s suffocating humidity. Despite its informality, it was glamorous, the palm-shaped ceiling fans redolent of a long-lost tropical era, the barkeeps courteous and unobtrusive. In the years since, I’ve often thought of the late 19th-century Raffles, its ivory facade and sprawling arcade. In 2019, after the neo-renaissance landmark was extensively refurbished by Champalimaud Design, I am eager to return—to walk slowly through the polished lobby with its arches and columns and right back into Long Bar. Naturally, it’s been revived, too, but carefully, with appropriate swaths of rattan and greenery. To match the spruced-up décor, a newly invigorated Singapore Sling also appears on the menu. This rendition elicits joy, not disappointment.