Bemelmans Bar: A New York Institution

A special place to grab a Manhattan in Manhattan

bemelmans bar, nyc

the carlyle hotel, nyc

bemelmans bar, nyc

bemelmans bar, nyc

bemelmans bar, nyc

bemelmans bar, nyc

Have you been keeping up with what’s going on with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s visit to New York? If you live here, it’s hard not to feel a little excited — for me this is especially true, since I don’t live too far from the Carlyle Hotel, where they are staying (I’ve seen or heard the convoy go by several times over the last few days!). Also, I might be mildly obsessed with Catherine. She’s kind of the cutest.

If you’ve never been inside, the Carlyle is beautiful. A perfect (and pricey) place to put your feet up for a few days in New York, so I’m not surprised at their choice in accommodation. I’ve never spent the night at the hotel, but it happens to house one of my favorite and sentimental places in the city: Bemelmans Bar. I first learned about this bar a few years ago when it was featured in an episode of The Layover. I was still living in SF at the time, but promised myself I’d visit the next time I was in New York. The chance finally arrived when Joe and I flew out to find an apartment here in the spring of 2013; the day we found our place and put down a deposit, we celebrated with cocktails here.

What makes Bemelmans so special? To me, it embodies old school New York. It’s a dark, swanky place, where there’s live, jazzy piano music playing every night and you can order the most perfect Manhattan (with the extra contents from the shaker served in a tiny pitcher, set over ice). Dapper waiters seem to appear out of nowhere, switching out little trays of bar snacks on your table (look out for the crispy cheese crackers — they’re addictive). But most special is how the bar gets its name — it is named after Ludwig Bemelmans, who was the creator and illustrator of the famed Madeline children’s books. The walls of the bar are covered in murals of his original artwork, featuring whimsical scenes of animals enjoying Central Park. The art is the only Bemelmans’ commission in the world that is open to the public.

Bemelmans is not the type of place you show up for a nightly drink, unless you run in a particular set in New York City. I mean, this is not your regular neighborhood watering hole. Drinks are outrageously expensive. We like to go when we’re celebrating something — a big win at work, moving in to our new place, and okay, once we went and had two rounds of drinks after a particularly bad week (I seem to recall we then came home and ordered pizza, a.k.a., best night ever). On one of our visits, we swear we saw one of the Olsen twins; it’s entirely possible, since supposedly, famous people are often grabbing a drink there (I’m the worst at spotting celebrities in the wild though).

If you’re ever in New York and find yourself up on the Upper East Side at cocktail hour, I highly recommend you pop in, listen to some tunes, and enjoy an ice cold cocktail. A word to the wise though: be sure to show up before 9 or 9:30, because depending on the day of the week, cover charge after these hours will run you $15-$35. For a proper happy hour though? Bemelmans is an institution that’s truly something special. I recommend grabbing a table if one is available (it’s first come, first served), so you can really inspect Ludwig Bemelmans’ work behind you.


Images: Carlyle Hotel; last image by Joel Meares for NY Food Chain;


  1. 12.9.14

    Never been, but now I want to! I also really like the Algonquin Hotel for a special old-New York vibe. I guarantee you the bartenders at this joint make triple my salary.

  2. 12.9.14

    I went to Bemelman’s when I first moved to the city (I was maybe 25 years old?) It was a disaster. At the time I was barely making enough money to pay my rent + buy groceries and every dollar I had was carefully allocated. Seriously – I had a spreadsheet – money was managed down to the dollar and I could barely even save.

    I remember going there with my best friend, and my budget for drinks for the night was maybe $50. We got decked out for a night of fun, took the subway to The Carlyle, and decided we would have one drink there before heading out for the evening and having less expensive drinks somewhere else (probably our usual go-to dive bars on the UES or Murray Hill.) Sadly, we had not accounted for the cover charge and were absolutely devastated to learn about that when the bill arrived. Our one drink ended up eating our entire budget for the evening. So we milked that drink, ate the entire bowl of nuts mix, and went straight back home to drink two buck chuck on the couch (maybe stopping at Gray’s Papaya for a $2 hotdog?) Thinking about that night makes me grateful that my financial situation has changed as I’ve gotten older. It also makes me a little bit nostalgic for when we were young and had weird nights out like that before all my friends got married!

    Long comment over… this post makes me want to go back! We should have a fun girls night there sometime this winter… get all dressed up and sit by the fire and listen to jazz. See you tonight! XO

  3. 12.9.14

    Um, LOVE this post! I didn’t know anything about this bar, hotel, or the fact that Prince William and Cate were visiting…sheesh, I’m seriously out of it! I really want to go there now, it looks amazingly “old New York,” like you said (which I love). I’ve definitely walked past a few times but had no idea how much was going on inside. I just need to drum up a special occasion now to justify the price :)

  4. 12.10.14
    Agoprime said:

    nice photos!

  5. 12.19.14
    Julie' said:

    I was here less than 24 hours before William and Kate arrived! My sister and our boyfriends enjoyed the live jazz and cozy atmosphere! We LOVED Madeline when we were little, so we had to check it out! (Cocktails are pricey, but great free bar snacks are complimentary!)

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