Why Gen Z is flocking to New York’s old-school hotels and bars

It was a scene that would have shocked Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, a longtime patron of the Carlyle: A security team was stationed in the hotel hallway to manage the crowds queuing for the elegant bar, Bemelmans. It was early Friday afternoon; way before cocktail hour.

Security is a new development for the beautiful, distinguished bar, named after the author of the ‘Madeline’ children’s book series, Ludwig Bemelmans, who also painted the walls when it first opened in the 1940s. Known for purist martinis, dark leather couches and live piano music (standards, jazz), Bemelmans has never had such a nightclub-level energy, says Dimitrios Michalopoulos, the manager. “The line is a new phenomenon for us, something that started after Covid,” he said. “I tell people to come back later when we are less busy, but they don’t want to leave. They prefer to wait.”

Sometimes the queue forms as early as 2 pm. It’s a hodgepodge of regulars—older Upper East Siders in tailored clothes or couples quietly celebrating an anniversary or birthday—and crowds of curious young people dressed in jeans, hats and leather jackets.

“Recently, a group of young girls asked me what cocktail I was drinking,” said Jennifer Cooke, who manages communications for the Carlyle. “It was a martini.”

The young patrons take selfies (no flash allowed) under the gold ceiling or in front of the Steinway. They ask the servers where Meghan Markle and Prince Harry were when they visited this fall.

“It’s a new audience and we have to adapt to meet everyone’s needs,” said Mr Michalopoulos.

Bemelmans isn’t the only old-fashioned New York City location experiencing a surge in young clientele. The Palm Court at the Plaza Hotel is nearly fully booked for afternoon tea on weekends, and many of the groups making those reservations are in their 20s, says Leo Capispisan, a manager. A few blocks away, young customers flock to order Red Snappers (his signature Bloody Mary) at the King Cole Bar, and earlier this month the 87-year-old Rainbow Room welcomed hundreds of alternative music fans for an album of the year, featuring English post-punk band Dry Cleaning. It was pitched by Rockefeller Center and Rough Trade, an independent label, which had recently moved its New York City store from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to 30 Rockefeller Plaza in Midtown.

Not everyone is impressed by this newfound childhood nostalgia for mid-century Manhattan. Daniel Kramer, a music fan who usually goes to venues like Elsewhere or Brooklyn Steel, was at the Rainbow Room event last week. While it was fun, it didn’t have the grungy, cool feel of other nights, he said, comparing the show to a wedding or bar mitzvah. “I’m always happy to visit a new music venue, but this felt weird,” he said. “It’s just next door to a Levain Bakery and FAO Schwarz.”

But for many young people, the city’s traditional institutions that survived the pandemic now symbolize a rich history and a resilient spirit. Before the coronavirus, Julia Berry, of San Antonio, Texas, often frequented trendy downtown cocktail lounges and Upper East Side sports bars when she came to town on business.

Now she makes it a point to visit more tried and true places she’s learned about in New York-focused documentaries and movies. “If you look around you, so many places close and all these modern places come up,” she said. “It made me want to experience something special while I still can.”

Mr Michalopoulos, the manager of Bemelmans, now spends much of his day making sure that his regular customers can get a table and that the newer, younger customers are dressed appropriately. “They can’t be in ripped jeans and tank tops,” he said. “We have very established guests who expect a degree of dress code enforcement.” He has become used to rejecting large groups. “We’re a small bar,” he says.

Still, Mr. Michalopoulos makes an effort to welcome the newcomers. The reason bars like Bemelmans and King Cole have been around for so long is that they appeal to generation after generation. “We want young people to come to this old bar,” he said. “I meet them when it’s their first time, and I’ve seen many come back.”

Cassandra De La Eumenia will probably visit Bemelmans soon. After attending the Rainbow Room dry cleaning show, she said she expanded her bucket list to visit as many retro bars as she could. On the 65th floor of 30 Rock – with its Art Deco bloom and skyline views, was a welcome break from the pace of the trendy bars of Bushwick, Brooklyn, said Ms. De La Eumenia. “It made me feel, ‘Oh, this is why I live in New York City.'”

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