SOMETIMES WE DO get a second chance to make a first impression. Your first thought on arriving at the new Empire Room lounge may be one of slight disappointment that the bar occupies a former post office space on the first floor, rather than a more vista-enhancing upper floor slot. Walking in on the huge, beautifully appointed throwback lounge, however, will quickly blow that first impression out of your mind.
The folks at Hospitality Holdings (which also operates the hugely popular Campbell Apartment in Grand Central Terminal and other swank spaces), have outdone themselves in terms of atmosphere. Banquettes and sofas abound, creating distinct spaces both intimate and sociable, and the same Art Deco influences that run through the Empire State Building are reflected in the overall Cool Cat decor. And though there is no private party space, it’s fairly easy to cordon off a small section for a group (call ahead and you may be able to reserve one of the corners.
At the moment, you’re greeted at the door by one or more of the general managers, who are happy to explain the bar’s philosophy. Part 1930s hotel bar, part after-work lounge, part intimate hideout, the Empire Room doesn’t really cater to turistas despite its location on the south side of New York’s most famous building. A dress code (no sneakers, hats, etc) ensures that the garishly dressed throngs lining up for Heartland Brewery around the corner probably won’t disturb your lunchtime martini (did we mention the place opens at 11am? Another huge plus). If you’re visiting NYC, of COURSE you’re welcome! Just please, leave the bermuda shorts and tevas in the hotel room.
This is the place to come, however, if you’ve just watched the new Frank Sinatra / Twyla Tharp Broadway Revue “Come Fly Away.” Snap your fingers, don your best Rat Pack skinny tie and Fly Away back in time.
The long, beautifully backlit bar wraps its amicable hosts (Sheldon was working the bar the night I arrived) and impressive spirits collection (including several single malts, Partida tequila reposado and anejo, Rittenhouse Rye, Royal Combier, and nearly-local BlueCoat gin and Vieux Carre absinthe) in a welcoming center station.
Jonathan Pogash, the self-billed Cocktail Guru (and frequent NYC morning show mixologist), whipped up the bar menu which offers up inventive riffs on classics like the Waldorf and Ramos Gin Fizz. In addition, Empire Room’s signature drinks (also crafted by Pogash) offer up something for everyone, from the showy, floral Empire Cocktail (BlueCoat gin, Dolan dry vermouth, Royal Combier, lemon juice, raspberry-orange marmalade and champagne) to the succulent, smoky Mezcal Martinez (Sombra mezcal, a healthy serving of dry vermouth, Combier, white creme de cacao, and Bitter Truth mole bitters) which reminded us of a single malt in its depth and complexity.
Come summer, you’re going to want to sip down Empire Room’s own Gotham Julep (maybe catch the Kentucky Derby at nearby Heartland Brewery in between sips). This rye-and-peach-driven take on the mint julep is fresh, refreshing and not too sweet.
While there still seem to be some kinks to work out in terms of consistency and perhaps offerings (we didn’t try the small bites food menu: It looks good but small, don’t plan your main meal here), and the cocktails are on the pricey side ($15 for The Empire) it is most definitely a welcome addition to a neighborhood desperately seeking space, serenity and quality cocktails. If this doesn’t put you in an Empire State of Mind, nothing will.
The Empire Room is located at 350 Fifth Avenue 33rd Street, between 5th and 6th Avenues.
Thirsty for more? Check out National Spirits Examiner or NY Drinks Examiner.
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