Keepicks: Why I Love Hotel Bars

When the Ritz Paris reopened in June after a four year renovation, the gimlet eye of many Ritz regulars and fans were trained on one of its smallest spaces – Bar Hemingway

The hotel’s stunning new courtyard garden and updated suites were all well and good, but as reported in the Financial Times, many will judge the success of the entire overhaul based on how the bar emerged from the renovations. Thankfully, it is almost exactly the same as before, save for some new leather upholstery and carpet and a few extra photos of Ernest Hemingway, who the bar is named after.

I recall my first time there, after a long day pounding pavements researching the LUXE Paris guide. It was intimate and less stuffy than what I’d imagined it to be. We weren’t served by the head barman, Colin Field, who doesn’t need a fancy title to be a legend in the cocktail world, but my martini was exemplary. And large. There was a buxom American woman holding court with her male companions, who encouraged her to sing, which she did, belting out a few arias. Everyone was jolly, and as we spilled out onto the Place Vendôme at closing time, my head was spinning from the alcohol, and the romance of it all. Needless to say, the bar was a firm LUXE Loves for many years.

In today’s so-hip-it-hurts cocktail scene where venues have house rules and mixologists sport perma-frozen frowns (when was the last time you saw one smile?), the classic hotel bar remains a beacon for drinks, service and atmosphere. Smart hoteliers at the most storied properties are all too aware that these can become hallowed grounds, ones which distil the spirit of a city, and shouldn’t be messed with. Tokyo’s historic Palace Hotel was knocked down and completely rebuilt in contemporary style, yet taking pride of place in its throwback Royal Bar is the meticulously restored original bar counter, a familiar touchpoint amid constant flux. And I’ll wager that the nearby Hotel Okura, whose magnificent main wing was criminally knocked down to make way for a modern high rise, will reincarnate the fabulous Orchid Bar when the new wing is completed – they would be daft not to.

There may seem a certain formula and sepia-tinged nostalgia to these old school bars – wood panelling, leather club chairs, parquetry or carpet, art and memorabilia, tuxedoed staff and optional jazz band – but the sum of its parts represents the city in which it sits. Take the beloved Bamboo Bar at the 140-year-old Mandarin Oriental Bangkok, complete with animal print cushions, rattan chairs and ceiling fans. It’s a tropical colonial treat and though recent renovations left it a tad too shiny, remains unmistakably Bangkok.

Along with history and atmosphere, hotel bars are reliable bets for excellent cocktails, especially the classics, and the service is often better than at hipster establishments. Hidden down a quiet street in London’s St James is Dukes, which was frequented by James Bond author Ian Fleming. Today, it’s more a muddle of toffs and tourists, but never mind when the martinis, mixed and served tableside by head barman Alessandro Palazzi, are arguably the best in London.

Then there are the stories and personalities which surround the most iconic bars. They provide character and uniqueness that no hyped-up mixologist, with their over-engineered concoctions, can come close to. At glorious Bemelmans Bar at The Carlyle in New York, those stories are told via artist Ludwig Bemelmans’ whimsical and witty murals of Central Park that adorn the walls. It’s as much a part of the fabric of Manhattan as Woody Allen, who performs there regularly with his jazz band to star-struck groupies and star-spangled drag queens, as was the case on one visit. I can’t wait to go back.

It’s the patrons who ultimately make a great hotel bar what it is, not just in times past, but today as well. A refuge for writers, artists, royals and celebs, hotel bars also welcome exotic travellers and lone businessmen from around the globe. The best are as popular with locals as they are with visitors and it all makes for wonderful people-watching. What’s more, it’s an easy way to get a taste of the high life, even if you can’t afford to stay in posh digs.

The line between nostalgic and naff is a tricky one to navigate, and some get it wrong. Raffles Singapore’s Long Bar comes to mind. What should be one of the world’s best bars is a tourist trap, its signature drink a sickly, lurid travesty and its classic cocktails only slightly better. Investing in good bar staff would help.

My hometown of Hong Kong fares better, with several great hotels housing top bars, including some relatively newer ones. Unfortunately, one that I was particularly fond of, Vong at the Mandarin Oriental, is no more. It’s where I got my break in Hong Kong, a job with LUXE, where I was editor for several years. The offer was made over a martini, naturally, and sealed with the clink of a glass, establishing a bond with the city that’s still going strong more than a decade later. Cin cin.

Kee's hotel bar picks:

Bar Hemingway, Ritz Paris, 15 Place Vendôme, Paris. +33 1 43 16 30 30.

Royal Bar, Palace Hotel, 1-1-1 Marunouchi,  Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo. +81 3 3211 5318.

Bamboo Bar, Mandarin Oriental Bangkok, 48 Oriental Ave, Bangkok. +66 2 659 9000.

Dukes Bar, Dukes London, 35 St James's Pl, London. +44 207 491 4840.

Bemelmans Bar
, The Carlyle 35 E 76th St, New York. +1 212 744 1600. 

Follow Kee on Instagram and Twitter @keepicks

– posted 13 July 2016


Kee Foong

Whether on safari in Botswana’s Okavango Delta or watching the opera at La Fenice in Venice, content consultant and ex-LUXE editor Kee believes that great travel experiences are made even better with a hearty meal, stiff drink, good company and a comfy bed.

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