The only true requirement of a great hotel is that it have a decent bar somewhere on the premises. They could leave out the front desk, room service, even the beds; surely we’d all find spots at the bar to keep us safe and warm until morning.
Regarding the character of said bar, there are certain prerequisites. It should be intimate in scale, yet capacious enough that you can always find a seat. The television—if we must—should loom no larger than the choking instructions. The loudest sound shall be the shaking of ice. An excess of staff is actually a minus; hotel bars are not hotels. And for God’s sake, no bouncers. A bartender should be the only thing standing between you and a perfect Manhattan.
It’s clear why, in the days of empire, sunstroked and shell-shocked colonials took refuge in the paddle-fanned lobbies of grand hotels. How pleasant to view one’s strange new surroundings through the rosy bottom of a cordial glass! Now, as then, a good hotel bar is an oasis of civility, a place for the displaced to regroup and recuperate from a day of sightseeing or latter-day empire-building. That’s why the best of the breed offer both a sense of the world outside and a retreat from it. It needn’t have windows nor a door onto the street (some legendary bars are famously landlocked, and cozier for it), but it should have a palpable relation to the city beyond its walls, such that—even after four perfect Manhattans—one can still hazard a guess at one’s locale.
Regarding the crowd, the proper measure is key: three-fifths out-of-town guests (for novelty) to two-fifths nonguests (for local color), with a dash of resident weirdo (for zest). Tip the balance in locals’ favor and you’ve upset the fundamental contract of a hotel bar, which is that the guest is always, always the most important person in the room.
Years ago I occasioned the bar at the Warwick New York Hotel, not far from my office in midtown Manhattan. There were nicer hotel bars, of course, some within blocks—the King Cole at the St. Regis, the Oak Bar at the Plaza, the 57 Bar at the Four Seasons. But there was liberation at the Warwick: you could relax here. In the real New York, one’s choice of venue was prescribed by age, income, fashion sense, and cheekbones. Hotel bars like the Warwick laid the Great Chain of Being on its side. This was democracy with a buzz on. Airline crews, dowagers in pearl-buttoned cardigans, Irish backpackers scarfing wasabi peas for the price of a $12 beer, and the occasional Yugoslav basketball team—all were welcome here, bad footwear be damned. I assume the Warwick had a door policy, though it was hardly exclusive. Some nights it felt like the Star Wars cantina with better lighting and a friendlier clientele. (People in hotel bars tend to be chattier than their brethren elsewhere, especially if they’re from Minnesota and just saw Billy Elliot.) And while it’s a thrill to be greeted at your local, there’s something about a bar where nobody knows your name. A hotel bar lets you be yourself by not having to be yourself.
More than anything, a drink at the Warwick made me feel like I was traveling. The place had all the iconography of an indeterminately foreign hotel: potted ferns; tasseled lamps; strange accents; overpriced gin. As the tumult of Sixth Avenue receded with the workday clamor, I could convince myself I was ensconced at the Taj in Bombay, the Oriental in Bangkok, or the Mount Nelson in Cape Town, resting up before my next foray.