Hotel Bars Become Hipster Havens

Cutting-edge Cocktails, Awesome Views and Hot Promotions — Hotels Raise the Bar

These days, the hotel operator looking to catch the moment is figuring out what the proprietor of a new restaurant looking to create a buzz knows: You can’t do it without a fabulous bar and lounge program. All sorts of hotels are doubling down on their nightlife emphasis, some through rooftop lounges, others with a blend of dining, cocktails and ambiance that make the hotel a destination spot for guests and locals. This is a bit of a retro approach — hotel bars were the see-and-be-seen places, the heart of the hotel back in the 1940s and ’50s. But some of today’s hoteliers are putting a decidedly contemporary slant on bar design and management, with great results. Here, we take a look at four that are pushing the envelope on the big trends in bar design and menu offerings.

Chicago’s Bounty

Operations Including Roof and Crimson Lounge Ramp up Chicago’s Hotel Bar Scene

Crimson Lounge Chicago
Chicago bars like the Crimson Lounge (above) at the Hotel Sax rely on innovative design, new technologies and clever cocktails to entice guests.

The Windy City crowds always do plenty of drinking at their splendid hotels, but lately they’ve kicked it up a few notches.
Take Roof at theWit Hotel. Perched 27 stories above the noisy Loop, Roof takes up 7,000 square feet for its multi-daypart, small-plate and wood-oven dining, happy-hour mingling and late-night scene making. The sleek, monochromatic design flecked with turquoise makes the glass-enclosed and vaulted ceiling all the more dramatic. There’s an enormous glass fireplace, numerous communal tables, lounge chairs, sofas and settees, and three bars; most extreme is a suspended, glass-enclosed table for eight that extends beyond the building and dangles 27 floors above the city.

“There wasn’t a lot we left to chance,” says theWit’s COO Lou Carrier. “The total programming of that space is important. A lot of people think of a place like this as a one daypart place, but we have four separate dayparts.” That’s important indeed, as evidenced by all the care taken on the design and setup, says Carrier. Meeting groups that come in for buffet lunches become post-work cocktailers and noshers, who become the pre- and post-theater crowd and then the late-nighters, especially on weekends.

“It’s amazing,” says Carrier. “We weren’t sure it was going to be so successful, but you can see the tide coming in and the tide going out each night as different groups come up here. You pick up on it right away, and you can see it happening.”

Roof at thewit
The right technology and decor can help outdoor spaces work in all climates, like Roof at theWit in Chicago.

Bartender Jonny Abens, with help from distributor Wirtz of Illinois, developed a strong local beverage component — with area spirits including Hum and Death’s Door — and focused on premium pours.

It’s the cutting-edge operations at Roof that keep the staff at places like the Crimson Lounge, located within Thompson Hotels’ Sax Chicago, on their toes and constantly developing new ideas. To augment VIP bottle service and innovative cocktails, Crimson recently unveiled a new menu of lobster mini sliders, cheese and sausage calzones and cheesecake lollipops, as well as introducing a table interface drink ordering system called TouchLife that allows guests to order, talk to other tables or even change their Facebook statuses. And they’ve brought on a new resident DJ, Grammy Award winner Frankie Knuckles.

“Nightspots are an important component to a new breed of hotel bars,” says Freddie Wyatt, CEO of Jamestown Entertainment, who helps Thompson manage, promote events, book parties and deliver celebs. “Before, you never used promotions in a hotel bar, but it’s now a must to have promotions; it’s almost as if they’re building hotels to be nightclub-centric.”

Hotel bars are aiming for the 35 and up crowd, especially women, he says, since the nightclubs there can provide a level of safety and convenience — guests recently drove from Detroit and St. Louis for a Kid Rock promotion and many stayed at the Sax, removing any driving or wandering around sketchy neighborhoods after their late-night outing. As hotels look to attract and keep this freely spending demographic, making their bars cool is paramount.

Crimson’s recent light fare menu extends the daypart a bit earlier, but Wyatt points out that keeping a timeless design works best. At the Crimson that means “very rock and roll” — leather, crystal, glass and red velvet sofas. “When you’re building, you have to find something original yet timeless so it can last.”

Up on the Roof

mad46 Cures Midtown Manhattan’s Summertime Blues

mad46 rooftop bar

When the rooftop bar craze went viral in New York City a few years ago, the formerly staid Roosevelt Hotel was already there. Once the nightly home to the Lawrence Welk orchestra, the hotel today finds itself with a contemporary rooftop success, mad46. Even on the hottest summer evening, the line forms by 5:30 on steamy 46th Street, with the full-tilt mob of after-work happy hour revelers waiting for beefy bouncers and officious guard girls to lead them to the single elevator and the hotel’s summit.

Despite what you may have heard, New York is still filled with stockbrokers and investment bankers, and mad46 gets its share of suits in full BlackBerry mode. The music is upbeat but modulated, the view of gleaming midtown towers spectacular, and with private parties, weekly movies and other promotions designed to keep the location buzzing, mad46 is one of those contemporary hotel scenes that gives hope to older facilities, proving that you don’t need to spend a fortune to deliver modern value to customers.

The bar also benefits from its location: between midtown and Grand Central Terminal, one of the world’s busiest commuter hubs where most watering holes are Irish-themed sports pubs. According to Kate Girotti, promotions manager for the hotel, New York City’s recent boom in hotel rooftop bars has benefited mad46. “There’s a lot more competition in rooftop places like this now than when we started three years ago, but I think that’s actually a good thing for us,” she says.

She keeps the three-season spot busy with events like Martini Mondays, Tequila Tuesdays and weekly movies. When the awnings on the wrap-around spot don’t provide enough cover, there’s the inside room, which is also useful for the overflow from private parties.

Customers tend to skew slightly older than the 30 and unders who mob similar spots in the Meatpacking District, and the night I visited, the crowd was in full New York multi-kulti: South Asian guys in suits, smartly dressed East Asian women thumbing their smart phones, yarmulked beer sippers and a clutch of cigar puffers taking advantage of the fact that, up on the roof, New York’s tough smoking ban in bars and restaurants can’t touch them. The crowd changes throughout the night, but at twilight, this group seemed plenty pleased to be just where they were.

Bringing the Scene to Philadelphia

Kimpton Hotels’ Square 1682 Merges Restaurant, Bar and Lounge into One Seamless Scene

Square 1682 Philadelphia

While many cities have a hotel dining and drinking tradition, that’s not so much true in Philadelphia. But leave it to Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, one of the country’s leading boutique hoteliers, to get it right with Square 1682, located in the Hotel Palomar. It’s a destination bar, restaurant and cocktail scene all in one, housed in an adjacent historic building with a block of walnut suspended by bronze chain links for a bar, a two-story, semi-transparent glass wine display and an exhibition kitchen.

Located in the city’s Rittenhouse Square neighborhood, Square 1682 is an all-day affair, more a restaurant with a vibrant bar and lounge than a pure scene play. Executive Chef Guillermo Tellez, once chef de cuisine at Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago and director of menu development for Philly’s Starr Restaurants, has the chops to attract serious diners, as do the works of Kimpton’s Master Mixologist Jacques Bezuidenhout and Master Sommelier Emily Wines. Since this is beer-mad Philadelphia, local beer choices were left to General Manager Anna Schneider.

“We’re at heart a neighborhood restaurant, but being attached to a great hotel partner, we get to introduce our guests coming through to these great beers,” she says. “The bar and lounge on the first floor are what’s visible from outside, and that’s how we get people to come in.”

Bell Pepper SmashThe design focuses on art and architectural notes, with wood-encased geometric stairs and a dining room lined with floor-to-ceiling windows. It’s also a LEED-registered restaurant using non-intrusive, high-quality, eco-friendly products, ingredients and services, part of Kimpton’s green initiative.

Restaurant Manager Nick Bathurst notes that, as with the food, cocktails are being developed with local ingredients like Bluecoat Gin. “We’ve definitely seen a trend in cocktails to work with area farmers to get things local and fresh. We tried to keep it local so that it’s relevant to our guests.” Meanwhile, Bezuidenhout’s Bell Pepper Smash (Ketel One Citroen Vodka, Canton Ginger liqueur, muddled raspberries and bell pepper) is the most popular drink. There’s a happy hour wave from 4 p.m. onward that opens the evening, giving way to dining room activity, and then another wave at the bar for the late nighters. Schneider and Bathurst just launched a Monday industry night promotion, spurred on by their staff — the first PBR is on the house, and complementary bar bites and some discounts are available. As Philly natives and visitors alike look for a space to imbibe, Square 1682 is waiting. NCB


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