Town & Country (USA)
Find your own Elaine’s.
Idon’t wait on lines. This is an absolute I have maintained for 22 years of New York City nightlife, one that sounds more indignant or curmudgeonly than it is. It’s not that I get in everywhere, slicing through throngs of would-be pleasure-seekers like a social machete. It’s that I have no qualms about giving up, turning around, and going home. But these days I don’t want to go home. I was just there. In this I’m not alone. After countless DIY cocktails, something is afoot as New Yorkers flock to classics like Bemelmans, ersatz classics like the Polo Bar, and aughts classics like Temple Bar.
We are not alone, either. This is a global phenomenon, from the Angelenos in the booths at Musso & Frank to the Parisians en route to Le Duc. The practice of fetishizing the familiar predates 2020, but in the past it was for one of three reasons: ambience, kitsch, or a really good cocktail. In 2018 the 65-year-old Forlini’s was descended upon by the fashion world. China Chalet (God rest her soul) drew a similarly motivated clientele. The Odeon never came back in style, only because it never went out of style. But these are different days. The gravitational pull of such establishments stems from a sense of discovery on the part of younger patrons, TikTok-weary tastemakers who find longevity adorable and who have arrived in New York at a time when the city feels like immersive theater (What’s behind this door? And that one?), and from those of us who have watched the likes of Café Loup and the Beatrice Inn shutter. There are only so many houses left to haunt. The ones still standing are our fellow redwoods. We survived the fire together, did we not?
This past fall I embarked on an upscale pub crawl to see if the old spots were worth the new fuss. Just as one starts at the top floor of a museum and goes down, I grabbed a friend and headed to East 76th Street, where the line for Bemelmans stretched into the lobby at 6 p.m. Pre-pandemic Bemelmans was a place to class up one’s evening with a cold martini and live music, to munch on salty snacks while wondering, Is that Jane Krakowski? But a post-pandemic weekend night brought a mix of middle-age tourists, couples in black tie looking to kill time before their canapés, and Gen-somethings in bomber jackets who stared at the walls, waiting for a signal that their nights could begin. The bar was so packed one of the bartenders paused and shouted, gleefully, “Honor system! Who was here first?” When a man with a reflective scalp sneered at me after I asked if I could rest my Sidecar on his table while I removed my jacket, I decided to keep the jacket on and head out.
The Campbell Apartment has always held positive associations. Its location within Grand Central gives it a clandestine feel, and the interior brings to mind the foyer of a gothic mansion. When I arrived there was already a formidable line, but, alas, the Campbell did not provide the hit of nostalgia for which I had hoped. If the city is going to be both blessed and doomed to relive the past, we may as well enjoy it. But most of the furniture had been cleared or changed, as if in preparation for a bar mitzvah sponsored by Restoration Hardware. Men in suits milled about, Amstels in hand, awaiting their trains in a way that felt less Cheever, more Camus.
Was I guilty of trying to “check off” the classics with half-baked enthusiasm and overcooked skepticism? As my friend and I shivered on the sidewalk, stomachs grumbling, I knew exactly where we had to go: the Russian Samovar. I’m happy to report the Samovar is alive with the old warmth (the violinist, the borscht marbleized with sour cream, the men in silk scarves screaming, “He was the Ukrainian president for, like, one day!”) but infused, much like its flavored vodkas, with a new cool. We sat at the Brodsky table and watched a markedly stylish and diverse crew in their early thirties pass our table (leopard print abounded, and one gentleman was wearing an orange Tom Ford suit with no shirt underneath). Two sallow-cheeked women (who later shared a bathroom stall) sat with a septuagenarian and his bobbing toothpick. The bemused hostess seemed to know half the customers. Unlike Sammy’s Roumanian (God rest her soul), the Russian Samovar has never trafficked in its own kitsch. It’s a society all its own. Which, incidentally, is what the world has been craving.
Mood renewed, we headed down to the recently reopened Temple Bar for a nightcap. The depth of mourning for the place, which closed in 2017, was revealed in the streams of enthusiastic tweets after news broke of its comeback. Temple Bar hasn’t changed much since its heyday (though its “clandestine affair” lighting now registers more as “vape in the corner”), but that’s the point of it. The spaces that get nostalgia right do so because they feel conscious of new customers without going out of their way to appease them. Cara Delevingne sat at the neighboring table and kept kicking me when she slid out, each time apologizing profusely, finally tacking on an incredulous, “Why is it so dark in here?” I looked around at the parade of beautiful people—or, well, tried to, squinting to see their velvet jumpsuits and thigh-high suede boots.“Because it’s always been so dark in here.”