Old King Cole was, by all reports, a merry old soul. But how much merrier might his Highness have been knowing that one day a bedrock New York City bar would bear his name? Pipes, bowls and fiddling trios are all right so far as they go, but they can’t compete with an inventive and perfectly executed small plates menu, impeccable service and a cocktail list featuring the original Bloody Mary.
A large percentage of New York bars and lounges strive to earn the descriptor “chic” with varying degrees of success. But the King Cole Bar & Salon, which has occupied the lobby of the St. Regis Hotel on 55th Street since around 1930, might have invented the concept itself. The King Cole is an expensive place to go for a drink—most cocktails are in the $25-$30 range—but then, you go there for a drink, not to get drunk.
Setting the old guard, old money vibe behind the bar is the gorgeous, 8-by-30-foot Maxfield Parrish mural “Old King Cole.” Commissioned by Colonel John Jacob Astor for the short-lived Knickerbocker Hotel in 1906, the mural made several stops before fetching up at the King Cole in 1932. (Astor himself died when the Titanic sank in 1912.) In the mid-30s, bartender Fernand Petiot started mixing a drink called the Red Snapper, which was eventually spiced up and refined into the Bloody Mary that we know and love today.
The service at the King Cole (honed on luminaries including Salvador Dalí, Ernest Hemmingway, Marlene Dietrich, Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio and John Lennon) is natural and fun. Some places project an air of sophistication; the King Cole is actually sophisticated—a difference that’s hard to detect until you’re steeping in it. The décor is lush, woody and subdued and the amber lighting does much to soften the tinkling of top-tier cocktails and plates of decadent potato skins stuffed with fresh lobster salad.
The King Cole is not a place you should visit often. Not just because of the prices, but also because its exclusivity should be held in reserve. However, when you do have the right occasion—say a blustery day after you’ve taken your niece to see The Tree, skated at Wollman rink and danced on the piano at FAO Schwarz—then the King Cole is the perfect respite. Order an effervescent kir royale, or the bar’s namesake Old King Cole cocktail, kick back in the presence of grown-ups and slowly recover the feeling in your toesies.