I can still remember my dad’s aggrieved response—”You go down there?”—in 2001 after I recommended a (now-closed) affordable and adorable restaurant on the Lower East Side. From the moment I set foot in New York, I gravitated downtown, all but abandoning the Midtown fine dining spots that were central to my family’s regular city visits. But for as many charming wooden banquettes I sat on or urbane, low-lit bars I frequented, I often thought fondly about the clubby dining rooms we used to frequent in the upper canyons of Manhattan: the hushed music, the vested servers, the experience of it all.
With the festive holiday spirit making me feel a little flush, I decided it was high time to make my way through the crowds of Fifth Avenue for some high-class spirits, venturing to the King Cole Bar at the St. Regis Hotel for the first time. For the latest installment in the Snapshots series on Good. Food. Stories., here’s a look at my evening at The King Cole Bar.
Recently reopened with a swanky new menu from chef John DeLucie (of Waverly Inn and The Lion fame), the bar underwent a restoration that lets its pride and glory, the eponymous mural by Maxfield Parrish that spans the length of the back wall, shine with renewed vibrance. (An earlier restoration had already scraped decades of nicotine and grime off the renowned mural, so the team no doubt had an easier time of it this go-round.)
There’s a cheeky backstory to the mural, as well—Parrish, allegedly fed up with the constant demands of patron John Jacob Astor (who’s depicted as the king), reputedly painted the jesters’ facial expressions in reaction to a certain odor coming from under King Cole’s robe. Quite the merry and flatulent old soul.
Note that you’ll pay royally for the privilege of getting tipsy in such a historic place, especially if you’re going for one of the bar’s six versions of the Bloody Mary, a drink originally served from behind the lengthy polished wood bar by legendary bartender Fernand Petiot in 1934. For an evening tipple, a classic martini or cocktail like the Old King Cole—the bar’s take on a Negroni—seems more appropriate for sipping among the gentlemen in suits that crowd the small but high-ceilinged space.
The cocktails give you a potent bang for your buck, however, and complimentary bowls of wasabi peas and pretzels are lovely, but no match for the (also pricey) bar menu. I very much appreciate the personal jar of Hellman’s mayo alongside the squat little bottles of Heinz ketchup and mustard that arrives with a trio of medium-rare sliders. But the half-quart Staub crock of truffled mac and cheese, at $15, is the best deal in the house. Dense, creamy, al dente, and topped with garlic breadcrumbs that make the truffle nearly superfluous, I now understand why it’s Delucie’s signature dish.
My everyday life doesn’t give me too many opportunities to feel like a king—er, queen—with my usual yoga-pants-and-kitchen-apron freelancer uniform. But for a night, the chance to get dolled up, slap on the red lipstick, and share a cocktail with a friend in a starry setting is too good to miss. (Bonus points for the unexpectedly essential mac and cheese.) I may not be chic enough to be a regular at the King Cole Bar like Salvador Dali or Babe Paley, but I’m happy to bask in its reflected (and colorful) glory for an evening. Long live the King.
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