Bemelmans Bar, a place to have a drink for Christmas
Madeline Picture Books
The Madeline picture books was a staple read in our household as our daughter, Bailey, was growing up. Her favorite of the series, was of course, “Madeline’s Christmas”. In the edition my wife, Brenda and I purchased for her, there were the lyrics and the musical notes to the traditional Christmas carol, “O’ Holy Night”. My daughter and I always ended every reading with a 3 out of 5 singing competition on who sang the song best. It always ended with a 5th and deciding sing-off, and my daughter always won ( for the record, I won most of them, but gave the kid a break and let her win; which she dutifully rubbed in my face every time).
In an old house in Paris…
Her affinity with the series had something to do with relating to the main character, Madeline. Each story begins: “In an old house in Paris, that was covered with vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines… the smallest one was Madeline”. In our daughter’s early school days, before she had a growth spurt, she was always one of the smallest, and certainly, one of the toughest and more colorful kids, as is Madeline in the books.
The series stuck with her for years, and she still reads, “Madeline’s Christmas”, every Holiday Season. Knowing that she loves the character, I had promised her that I would bring her to the Bemelmans Bar during Christmas time when she grows up. That time came this past week.
Yuletide in New York
It was a brisk night on upper Madison Avenue. My cousin and his girlfriend were in town for the evening and we walked up Madison Avenue looking for a place to have a proper drink. The Yuletide in New York is special, and almost always makes one want to hark back on the past during this time of year. To me, it’s the best time to visit a traditional bar and have a traditional drink.
Bemelmans Bar at The Carlyle Hotel
My cousin was donning his new Prada jacket, and his girlfriend a flirty skirt and sweater ensemble, which I believe was also from the Italian fashion house. I had worn my favorite navy cashmere turtleneck and high-waisted wool pants that I recently purchased. I deemed us suitable to jaunt into the Carlyle Hotel, a premiere luxury residential hotel that has been an integral part of New York City’s deep hospitality history. It’s here that the Bemelmans Bar is set.
The Christmas Song
The ladies sitting in the chocolate-brown leather banquettes situated to the left were still in their furs as they cozied up to the gentlemen they were with. The piano player was had just started the first few bars of “The Christmas Song”, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire….”, as we made ourselves to the small round nickel-trimmed black glass table in which the host kindly escorted us. Once seated, it was hard not to get caught up in what it must have been like during the height of the place when Art Deco was the architectural rage and jazz played in the background (though I have never seen a downtime here) as we appreciated the black granite bar and a 24-karat gold leaf-covered ceiling.
Looking Good and Having a Good Time
The place was packed. There was a nice hybrid of fashion girls at the bar wearing the latest looks from Lanvin or Chloe or one of those French designers that made drop waist jogger pants cool, to older men with their somewhat stuffy Brioni suits. One thing they all had in common was that they looked good and were having a good time. Few places can satisfy both crowds and this place does just that. It had been years since I’ve had a drink at this place and was pleased to see that the same bartenders were working the bar. To paraphrase Wordsworth, few “men have ever manned” a place as well as these guys have.
A bit about Ludwig Bemelmans
However, of all the things to be charmed with, it would have to be the large-scale murals in the hotel bar. Ludwig Bemelmans not only authored the Madeline books, he was also a successful artist for The New Yorker, Vogue, and Town and Country. Using his distinct style of art, he transformed the bar with scenes of Central Park that included picnicking rabbits and ice-skating elephants that are reminiscent of the artwork in the Madeline series of books. Another great fact about the man, which makes me revere him even more, is that rather than be paid for his art, Bemelmans exchanged his work for a year and a half of accommodations at The Carlyle for himself and his family, which I’m sure also included a few drinks. Due to this, the bar was named in his honor and remains the only surviving Bemelmans’ commission open to the public.
Christmas music being played at Bemelmans
The guys in the Brioni suits were now talking to the fashion girls and the women in the furs had disrobed and showing off their cocktail dresses which both had enough glitter to make the place even more holiday-ish. We had been enjoying rounds of wine and old-fashioned as the three of us continued to enjoy the standards and Christmas music being played on the piano, while being served water and mixed nuts without having to ask for them.
Only Kid in the Establishment
Bailey walked in with Brenda just in time for another round. She had just finished school and at the age of 12 was the only kid in the establishment, but nobody noticed as she is as tall as most adult women and certainly has a swagger and knows how to handle herself at a place like this, even though she was carrying a plaid backpack filled with books. I guess that’s one asset attained through the years in which we had her hang out predominantly with adults and walking into many places most people wouldn’t bring their children. I can tell she was in awe of the place as she walked toward me.
Toasting to Christmas
“I feel so underdressed.”, she says.
“Don’t be silly, you look great.”, I tell her.
As she looked further she recognized the artwork and realized she had finally made it to Bemelmans.
She joined the conversation, whipped out her homework every so often, as to not fall too far behind, and had her share of nuts, chips, and water.
“This is a great night.”, she whispers to me.
She raised her ice water which was poured into a highball glass to our glasses, and we all toasted to a “Merry Christmas”.
From an old hotel in New York, that was covered with Christmas lights, walked out five happy people in one straight line… the smallest one was Bailey.
Ready to have a drink at Bemelmans Bar at Christmas? Here are the details:
We almost always use Skyscanner for the best in flight deals.
The Carlyle Hotel is located on Madison Avenue between 76th and 77th St. Although we have not stayed there before, we know through our clients at our day jobs in fashion that it is amongst the best in luxury hotels in town. If you can’t stay the night, at least have a drink at Bemelmans. We book many of our hotels through Booking.com and have been happy with their deals, the hotels they have on offer and their convenience.
If you’re in town, do use UBER for your daily transportation if you just can’t bare another ride on the subway. Uber is arguably the best and most inexpensive way to get around any town, even NYC. Most of the drivers we’ve met through Uber were not only more courteous and efficient than yellow cabs, they are also full of good information on the best eats in town.
Some of the links are Affiliate links, which means we’d receive a small commission for your purchase but as always, the prices remain the same for you and Thank You.
Coming to NYC during Christmas? Or know someone who is? Share this short itinerary!