Preservation Nation continues its tour of historic bars as we sashay our way into America’s historic cocktail lounges, the upscale gin joints where high society has sipped sophistication for decades. This week, we check out Monkey Bar in New York City.
If you’re in the Big Apple and on the prowl for Jazz Age ambiance, a stiff bourbon smash, and some classic clams casino, look no further than the Monkey Bar in Midtown. Featured as a backdrop to both Carrie Bradshaw and Don Draper’s cocktail-fueled adventures in episodes of Sex and the City and Mad Men, the Monkey Bar has been a home for free-spirited writers, tortured ad men, and other thirsty New Yorkers for close to eight decades.
Built in 1936 as part of the stylish and infamous Hotel Elysee (where Tennessee Williams died in 1983 after choking on a bottle cap), the Monkey Bar was purchased in 2009 by Vanity Fair editor-in-chief Graydon Carter and hotelier Jeff Klein and underwent a full restoration. Painted walls featuring scenes of monkeys playing cards, drinking, and celebrating, originally rendered in the ‘30s and ‘40s and restored in the ‘80s, are a defining feature of the main bar area.
The Monkey Bar’s most distinctive attribute, though, is undoubtedly a large wraparound mural in its Art Deco dining room. Commissioned in 2009 by Carter and Klein and painted by renowned artist Ed Sorel, whose iconic work frequently appears in the New Yorker and Vanity Fair, the mural features a spread of sixty Jazz Age icons, from musicians Frank Sinatra and Duke Ellington to writers like Dorothy Parker and Langston Hughes. It provides an engaging visual component to a candle-and-lamp-lit room flush with red leather-upholstered booths and chairs.
Popular cocktails at the Monkey Bar include the Monkey Gland, concocted with gin, pomegranate molasses, orange juice, absinthe, and orange bitters; and the Savoy Graydon, with vodka, sweet vermouth, green chartreuse, lemon juice, agave, and soda. For those who are hungry, general manager Christopher Dorsey says that the Monkey Bar burger, with Monterey jack cheese, stewed peppers, and French fries, as well as the smoked spaghetti with shrimp and scallops, are both popular choices.
While the Monkey Bar accommodated an elite clientele after its post-restoration re-opening in 2009, with the guest list largely catering to Carter’s network of glamorous friends and professional connections, the reservation process has become much more democratic since a “refreshening” in 2011, which saw the addition of restaurateur Ken Friedman as a managing partner, as well as a new chef and general manager.
Interested in making the Monkey Bar your next destination for a night on the town? Here are some more details.
Location: The Monkey Bar, 60 E 54th St., New York, NY 10022
Hours: Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, 5:30 p.m.-10 p.m. Closed Sunday.
Year opened: 1936
What to order: Try the Monkey Gland or the Clover Club Cocktail, with gin, dry vermouth, raspberry syrup, and an egg white.
Keep an eye out for: Wooden and brass monkey figurines perched around the interior.
Best Yelp reviews: “I don’t know how they do the voodoo that they do, but those monkeys cast a spell on me…You can keep your faux speakeasies and velvet ropes, this is my kind of New York.”
“Cutest restaurant ever. Chill, speakeasy atmosphere. Delicious food. Always fun to people watch (I met my favorite fashion designer here.) Kind waitstaff. Would visit New York solely to return to this cute place.”
The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.