The New York rooftop bar is back. Debuting in 1890 atop Manhattan’s Casino Theater, high-altitude drinking has given up the spotlight (twice, in fact) to the hidden, even subterranean at times, speakeasy. But as a burst of real estate development has drawn New Yorkers’ glances back upward, it seems rooftop bars—like the clubby Le Bain at the Standard, High Line in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, or Westlight, helmed by James Beard Award-winning chef Andrew Carmellini, at the William Vale hotel in Williamsburg—are back on top.
This February, Ophelia, a new rooftop cocktail lounge in Midtown East, sets the bar higher. On the 26th floor of the Beekman Tower, an Art Deco landmark building blocks from the United Nations Plaza, Ophelia pairs elegant interiors and panoramic views with characteristics more common to New York’s modern speakeasies: a rich history, a sense of intimacy, and confidently-crafted cocktails.
In terms of history, the team behind Ophelia—Merchants Hospitality, Inc., and the consulting firm Public Agenda, both based in New York—had no shortage of material to mine. Built in 1928 and designed by American architect John Mead Howells, the building, formerly named the Panhellenic Tower, served as a women’s-only hotel and lounge for college graduates who’d belonged to national Greek-letter sororities. After the rooftop space opened to the public in the 1930s, it entered a new era as the Top of the Tower restaurant, a neighborhood favorite once frequented by Frank Sinatra, Miles Davis, and Frank Zappa. (The rooftop has been unoccupied since 2013, when Top of the Tower closed; the building’s lower floors now serve as an extended-stay hotel, unaffiliated with Ophelia.)
“The bones [of Ophelia] are from the 1920s but no space stays static in time,” says Laura Mueller-Soppart, CEO of Public Agenda. “We wanted to keep [the space] true to the narrative of what it would have evolved into.”
Design-wise, Ophelia—a name chosen to bring to mind the ingenue who would have frequented the bar in the 1920s—nods to both the past and present. The first view, upon emerging from one of three elevators, is a 24-foot pewter-cast bar, lined with stools upholstered in deep red velvet from Italian textile company Alessandro Bini. A mounted, stuffed albino pheasant, wings spread in flight, presides over a curated selection of liquor bottles, lit from below. Three paneled windows, with original 1920s iron framework, serve as a backdrop. For the walls, two shades from the U.K.-based Little Greene Paint Company—a Bone China blue, based on pale blue Wedgwood china from the 1930s, and a more modern royal shade—contrast with each other. Surrounding the entirety of Ophelia’s high-ceilinged, opulent hub is a narrow, covered “patio” with plush banquettes set along the perimeter, and black and white tiles underfoot. A continuous bank of windows keeps the visual promise of 360-degree views, while two fully open-air terraces, on the north and south sides, offer the full rooftop experience.
Ophelia’s embrace of its past is best expressed by a provocative assemblage of artifacts, sourced with the help of Chicago-based curator James Wheeler. When sitting at the bar, patrons can gaze directly down past their cocktails into a glass-topped display case with arcana such as a 1950s matchbox from Top of the Tower and a selection of butterflies. Elsewhere, handwritten notes, vintage tarot cards, and snapshots are tucked onto shelves. Mounted on opposite ends of the bar area, a peacock and a peafowl, both sourced from the same farm, regard one another.
“It’s a cabinet of curiosities,” says Mueller-Soppart. “We kind of want people to sit here and guess for a while.” (The bar plans to publish a guidebook, available to guests, that explains each artifact and its history.)
Of course, Ophelia’s high design and historical resonance wouldn’t matter if its food and drinks faltered. The bites, from New York-based chef Stephen Putnam, are a pleasant mix of vintage-inspired classics like a caviar service and oysters Rockefeller, and updated New American offerings such as a Maine lobster spring roll with mango and Thai dipping sauce. But the singular cocktails, designed by head mixologist Amir Babayoff, put the bar on the map.
Case in point: “Ophelia’s Ascension,” the bar’s namesake drink. To make it, Babayoff lights a piece of cedar aflame, capturing its smoke in a bulbous vial, then adds smoked Jamaican pepper-infused mezcal, bourbon, Sri Lankan palm sugar, and aromatic bitters before serving in an Old Fashioned glass. The “Purple Tuxedo” is another essential, comprised of Empress 1908 gin (whose pale indigo color is the result of an infusion of butterfly pea blossom), aquavit, vermouth, Velvet Falernum liqueur, absinthe, and plum bitters; as a finishing touch, Babayoff sprinkles real gold flakes across the cocktail’s surface. Most importantly, though, Babayoff’s concoctions are as well-balanced as they are beautiful.
The cumulative effect—of big views, sophisticated design, theatrical mixology, and fundamentally gorgeous cocktail construction—adds up to a magic that patrons may not even realize they've succumbed to.
“It was funny,” Mueller-Soppart says, “The other night, people weren’t even talking about the drinks like [they were] drinks. They were like, ‘Oh my god, which potion did you get?’” She shrugs and smiles. “Which is totally what we want.”
3 Mitchell Pl.; opheliany.com.