A Historical Look at Bemelmans Bar

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From world-famous ateliers to designer hotspots, Historical Interiors is your weekly column for iconic decor, rare residential imagery, and cultural fashion landmarks.

„Shockingly, for an affluent area, the Upper East Side of Manhattan has a whole hell lot of really crappy restaurants,“ the late Anthony Bourdain once said. „There are a few shining exceptions, however.“

One of those shining exceptions is Bemelmans Bar, a special, one-of-a-kind Old New York experience that’s located somewhat discreetly on the ground level of The Carlyle (the very same five-star hotel that celebrities and designers get ready at for the Met Gala) on the corner of 76th Street and Madison Avenue.

And while the drinks are exceptional (the dirty martinis, especially), the main draw is actually the décor. Seven years after author and illustrator Ludwig Bemelmans—for whom the bar is named—published his iconic children’s book series Madeline in 1939, he was invited to immortalize his artistry and transform the walls (and bar lampshades) into a charming wraparound mural that paid tribute to Central Park, in exchange for free accommodations at the hotel for a year and a half.

He dreamed up a whimsical cast of characters, like dapper rabbits in suits, fur-wrapped snakes, ice-skating elephants, a pipe-smoking dog, umbrella-holding giraffes, and bunnies sipping wine or picnicking, alongside a cameo appearance by Madeline and her classmates. It’s the only public display of Bemelmans artwork anywhere in the world, and for that, “not only is it an incredibly rare thing, it’s also incredibly cool,” Bourdain said.

Since the piano bar opened 71 years ago in 1947, the mural has been meticulously preserved, with skilled restorers reportedly using wet Wonder Bread slices to soak up decades of nicotine buildup on the walls. In 2002, designer Thierry Despont revived the interior’s Art Deco details: nickel-trimmed glass black tabletops, black granite bar, and a stunning 24-karat gold-leaf covered ceiling. Lining the walls are chocolate-brown leather banquettes and it’s here—or on the plush leather bar stools—that sat some rather famous figures (other than Bemelmans himself), like Harry Truman, Jackie Kennedy, and Cyndi Lauper.

But other than the décor, live entertainment is also a huge attraction. A Steinway grand piano sits in the middle of the bar, in the thick of action, and a rotating roster of talented pianists and trios (including Earl Rose and Rob Mosci)—all clad in sharp white tuxes—play a set every day starting at 5:30 p.m. until midnight on Sundays and Mondays, 12:30 a.m. from Tuesday to Thursdays, and 1 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. There’s a daily cover charge for this reason starting at 9 p.m. or 9:30 p.m. ( for a seat at the bar or per person at a table from Sunday through Thursday; at the bar or per person at a table on Friday and Saturday).

And it’s to this soundtrack of classic hits and quintessential New York songs that patrons leisurely sip on their artfully crafted cocktails. The three most popular signatures are: The Old Cuban, a “champagne mojito” with Bacardi 8 rum, muddled mint, fresh lime juice, and angostura bitters; Passion Royale, a passion fruit-infused vodka with fresh lime juice and topped with champagne; and The Gin-Gin Mule, Tanqueray, ginger beer, muddled mint, fresh lime juice, and simple syrup. But it’s the martinis and Manhattans that come with an extra serving(!) that’s kept in a chilled carafe on the side, allowing guests to top off their own drinks at leisure.

Drinks are expensive (cocktails run upwards of ), but it’s the experience of being transported back to a more sophisticated time (where servers wear dinner jackets!), of listening to skilled musicians live, of the privilege to view Bemelmans’ legacy while downing an artisanal cocktail creation, that you’re paying for.

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