Luis Serrano remembers the last night he was at Bemelmans, the famed lounge inside the Upper East Side’s Carlyle Hotel. It was March 16, a Monday night. The 56-year-old native of Ecuador is the longest tenured of the famously red-jacketed Bemelmans Bar’s barmen. He began his 27-year run not long after he immigrated to the U.S.
Monday nights are often slow, but this particular Monday, Serrano says, was different: “It was sad.”
Serrano recalls there were four or five people in the bar. He worked alongside Pedro Caballero, another bartender. He remembers when the manager came up and gave him the news that they would be shutting down. Caballero made a video on his iPhone to capture the memory of the one table there singing loudly and wishing the bartenders good-bye, that they’d see them soon, maybe in the next month or so. Of course, like them, he never imagined the closure would last so long.
For the uninitiated, Bemelmans Bar in Manhattan’s Carlyle Hotel is where you take someone of any age when you want to show them that increasingly rare bridge that spans the delta between the shimmering, glittering, gilded opulence of New York City and the real world. It emanates a kind of impossible distilled luster and charm; it shines with a polish we mostly experience only through movies and TV. But Bemelmans is the real thing, one of a dwindling number of spots in our increasingly globalized, franchised, suburbanized city that can exist here and only here.
Pastry chef Natasha Pickowicz recently pointed out to me at her recent pop-up (itself, a winking reference to the bar) that Bemelmans is the kind of place where waiters will replace your table’s stainless-steel snack caddy before it ever goes empty. The service has all the sharpness and discretion of a pocketknife with the friendly, familiar warmth of a teddy bear — no one has ever been made to feel like it’s their first time there. The acoustics are perfect. When it’s busy, the room hums as if it’s the center of the world, and when it’s quiet, as a veritable oasis of serene calm, it throws into sharp relief the relative chaos of the city outside. It doesn’t sparkle; it glows — in rose gold, brass, and maroon hues.
The bar is, of course, named for Ludwig Bemelmans, the author of the Madeline books, whose only public-facing commission — a drawing of Central Park across the four seasons — adorns the walls. He painted it to square up his massive, increasingly unpayable hotel bill. Its precise amount is a moot point because what the Caryle got is both figuratively and technically as priceless a piece of art as you’ll find. Everyone has a favorite part of the wall. For me, it’s the rabbit posted up against the tree in the smoking jacket. For some, it’s the explicit reference to Madeline, the girls in rows walking over the uptown wall of the bar, or the drawing of the twins who grew up in the Carlyle while Bemelmans was there.
Every square inch of the place is covered in the lore of a bygone New York era. It attracts oligarchs, artists, bartenders, baseball players, the fashion crowd, the finance crowd, writers, musicians, 27-year-olds, and 72-year-olds. On any given night, you’ll find anything from gowned and tuxedoed patrons to leather-jacketed ones seated in its banquettes. Its closest analogs are Bar Hemingway in Paris and Harry’s Bar in Venice, those exceedingly rare watering holes with an acute patina of soul, a hard-earned aura unlike anyplace else. Bemelmans is what everyone imagines New York City can be, brought to life.
Yesterday, the Carlyle Hotel — itself a beacon of style, luxury, and celebrity — turned 90. Today, it will start hosting guests for the first time since March. It had never before been closed for this long. World War II, 9/11, blackouts, hurricanes, you name it: The Carlyle has stuck it out. But this time, like countless city businesses, it was forced to lock up, and it furloughed and laid off employees. Outside of the few residents of the building who have also stuck out the pandemic, its hallowed halls have mostly stayed empty. Masked hotel guests will slowly start to fill its rooms once again.
But Bemelmans Bar, the famed jazz performance space Café Carlyle, and the Carlyle Restaurant will, for the immediate and unvaccinated future, remain closed. And yet the Carlyle, especially Bemelmans Bar, has somehow been ubiquitous lately, even as it sits in the dark.
In February, the Hulu reboot of High Fidelity went online with Bemelmans as not just a setting but a significant plot point, and a month later, the bar showed up in the second episode of HBO Max’s Love Life. In early September, Hamilton Leithauser — a musician more typically associated with Brooklyn’s Pitchfork-approved venues than with anything north of, say, 14th Street — put out a live album of his recent run at Café Carlyle (which features, in addition to his new material, a Carlyle cabaret-like setlist with covers of Lana Del Rey, Big Thief, and Randy Newman songs).
And Bemelmans didn’t just make the movie but is featured on the poster (and in nearly every piece of the press material) for Sofia Coppola’s latest film, On the Rocks. Released last month, it stars Bill Murray as a father counseling his daughter, played by Rashida Jones, through (and possibly instigating) her marital troubles. Earl Rose, the piano man of Bemelmans, also made the cut, as did, at Coppola’s insistence, a piece he was noodling ad hoc on the piano while the movie filmed.
For Coppola, putting this bar (which is also a setting in her Very Murray Christmas special) into her latest film wasn’t ever a question; it was planned from the start.
“I imagined Bemelmans — that was one of the first moments in the story,” Coppola explains. “I was thinking about [the characters] over a martini, discussing life and relationships.” The film isn’t a Xerox of Coppola’s life, and Murray’s gadabout character, Felix, is, she claims, far different from her own father. But she and her dad have sat in Bemelmans discussing life and relationships. (Rose remembers a night they were there together when the elder Coppola requested the Rodgers and Hart standard “Wait Till You See Her” and “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered,” a tune from the show Pal Joey).
“I can’t remember the first time I went,” Coppola says. “I just feel like it’s always been there.”
The director Paul Feig, an executive producer of Love Life, says he made his first trip to Bemelmans “back when I didn’t have much money.” He’s now a regular, and he can’t remember going this long without visiting the bar, or ever not being in New York without going there. Bemelmans, Feig explains, “is a classic kind of adult life at its finest.” He insisted that it make the second episode of Love Life, in which the main character goes on a date with her ex-boss, an older man, and this seems to be a common thread: The Bemelmans scenes in Love Life, High Fidelity, and On the Rocks all feature older men taking significantly younger women on dates to Bemelmans. Paired with the Madeline drawings on the wall, the place is nothing if not a great Freudian cocktail.
“My favorite thing in the world,” Feig says, “is to get to Bemelmans right before the music starts at 9:30, to get that table right next to the piano, sit there, bring up my notepad, and just kind of write and listen to the music and have drinks.”
The last time Leithauser was at the Carlyle was back in January, when he was recording that live album. On the phone last week, he told me about his own first trip to Bemelmans. He was around 8 years old, and he ran into Ross Perot in the men’s room. “It was amazing,” he says. “I was awestruck.”
Leithauser also remembers looking around the barroom itself: “I’d never seen anything so fancy in my life. I was like, I shouldn’t fucking touch anything, you know? And it was magical — it was like a dream.”
Dimitrios Michalopoulos, the affable, ever-smiling and -bustling manager of Bemelmans, remembers the last day he was at the bar too. It was a Saturday, March 3. He was about to go on medical leave for a small surgery; he didn’t even get to say good-bye.
Michalopoulos, 37, has worked at the Carlyle for the past four years. After moving to New York from Athens, the service-industry vet hopped on Google, looked up the nicest hotels in New York, saw the Carlyle, and immediately submitted an application. He started as an assistant manager for in-room dining, and one night they needed someone to cover Bemelmans. The rest is history. Since the pandemic started, he has been at home in the Bronx with his wife and two young children, ages 3 and 1. He says he can’t remember ever getting to spend this much time at home with his family, which he has enjoyed.
But like Serrano, Rose, and everyone else from Bemelmans, he can’t seem to stay away from the job. Like them, he saw the Coppola movie as soon as it came out. He has been in touch with his co-workers, figuring out ways to make the bar smoother, running ideas past one another for new drinks and new touches for service. And, of course, as with the others, customers have been in touch with him too. One longtime regular, after checking in on him, sent him a few bottles of wine.
“It’s not like an office job where you go there, you do your hours and then you clock out and you go home. It’s a magical place. After all these years,” he says, in his unmistakable, thick Athenian accent, “it feels my living room. This bar, believe it or not, is part of our lives.”
Michalopoulos didn’t remember just his last night there but, somehow, improbably and naturally, mine, too. The last time I was at Bemelmans was Thursday, February 13, for the last first date I went on before all this started. My date lived uptown and worked in midtown. It had been too long since I’d been to Bemelmans, and I would take any excuse to go, even if I had to travel all the way from Brooklyn (only to go back two hours later for a dinner with friends).
Rose was at the piano. Michalopoulos sat us in the banquette behind him (he remembered this too). It was the rare first date that was fun. Easy, even. The bar was bustling. The date ran long over.
When I finally rushed back to the Brooklyn dinner afterward, a full hour late, I got the appropriate amount of shit and was grilled by my friends.
Where was this date? Bemelmans?! Who is this girl? Was it a good date?
And the thing is: It was. Just as I was about to explain why, a friend cut in.
“Of course, it was a good date,” she said, as if she’d been there herself. “It was Bemelmans.”