New York Art Bars Old & New
The Roxy Hotel New York

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New York Art Bars Old & New

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The legendary bars where famous artists drank and the bars drawing the new school of artists today.

New York City streets are teeming with history. And for a city that has long attracted its fair share of artists, some of that history involves the creation and beginnings of some of our most celebrated musicians, writers, actors, painters—you name it.

One of the strangest things about this sense of history is to realize that it’s all around you. Have you ever walked by the Fraiche Maxx in Union Square? It’s hard to imagine but that quick-bite-deli was once Max’s Kansas City, the very spot where the Andy Warhol crew famously frequented. And if you listen closely enough to The Velvet Underground’s Live at Max’s Kansas City, you can hear the poet Jim Carroll (who happened to be holding the microphone for the recording) ordering drinks between songs. Don’t you wish you were in that room?

This is one of the most magical things about the city: the realization that some of our most treasured pieces of art were born inside walls that still stand today. That so many artists eventually launched into the stratosphere of iconography, lore and legend were once just having a drink at the bar with their friends, casually helping record a now-legendary album. It makes you feel constantly on the precipice, always in the mix. 

That CVS near Washington Square Park? That was once the Cedar Tavern, the Expressionist-favorite Jackson Pollock got kicked out of and whose ashtrays Keraouc allegedly urinated in. And though many of these legendary institutions have fallen victim to the usual NYC neighborhood turnover, there are still an abundance of bars today bursting with the creativity that once made the NYC art bar such a thing. We thought we’d walk you through some of our favorites; both old and new. 

 

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Bemelmans

This is one spot that has stood the test of time and, in some ways, been rejuvenated by it. Originally opened in the ’40s, this hotel piano bar within The Carlyle was named after Ludwig Bemelmans, the author and illustrator of the Madeline series. In 1947, he was offered a year and a half of accommodations at the hotel for himself and his family in exchange for painting a mural throughout the bar. He agreed, of course, and today the mural still stands—vignettes of Madeline and her guardians in Central Park throughout all four seasons are scattered about the room.  

That iconic mural paired with art deco decor makes this spot feel undeniably old school, the kind of room that Frank Sinatra might have once hung out in. Well, legend has it, he did—and so did many others. For years, this bar was an under-the-radar beloved staple of those in-the-know. But today, the bar has seen an unexpected upswing in popularity—with the Gen Z crowd flocking in for its Instagram-friendly aesthetic and for a taste of the authentic New York experience—along with a martini or two. Though hard to get into, this iconic spot is well worth the wait. 

35 E 76th Street, Manhattan; (212) 744-1600

Raoul’s

The birth of Raoul’s was an accident. On a casual outing to an Italian restaurant in Soho in the mid-1970s, the French documentarian Serge Raoul jokingly asked the owner if it was for sale. Ready to retire, the owner offered to sell it for $15k. Having come from a family of restaurateurs, Serge brought his chef brother Guy onboard and the two turned the restaurant into Raoul’s, at the time, a rare Parisian bistro in the heart of downtown NYC. 

With late-night hours, the spot quickly became a haven for celebrities and the downtown glitterati. Famously, the original SNL cast celebrated post-tapings with dinner at Raoul’s—the only place still serving. Soon, artists from the budding gallery scene in Soho adopted it for their post-opening parties. The Pulp Fiction cast celebrated the iconic film’s premiere here. In its heyday—if you were there late enough– you’d find Raoul’s charismatic maitre d ‘ Rob Jones performing drag for the crowd from the bartop 

Today, you’ll find a mixture of shopping-crazed tourists peppered among the locals but the authenticity of the space is ever-present. As is the quality of the burger, a customer favorite. But be quick! Only a dozen are offered per night and they usually sell out well before 8pm. 

180 Prince Street, Manhattan; (212) 966-3518

KGB Bar and The Red Room

Opened in 1993, the building in which KGB Bar stands was once a speakeasy controlled by Lucky Luciano before becoming a private social club for communists and socialists. Clearly inspired by its history, soviet memorabilia adorns the walls of this East Village haunt. And though its name may call to mind a certain Soviet relation, the name is actually shorthand for the adjacent Kraine Gallery, as in “Kraine Gallery Bar”. 

But the most impressive thing about KGB Bar isn’t its history, it’s the literary stamina. Its Monday Night poetry series has lasted more than a decade and it currently hosts an active literary scene with regular readings from both impressive contemporary poets and the Dimes Square crowd. As one of the best and longest-running literary venues in the city, KGB Bar is more than a standby—it’s a must. And if you make your way up the stairs, you’ll find a red door on the third floor. Make sure you turn that handle or you’ll miss out on The Red Room, a sexy, intimate space for readings, live comedy and music. And, for a bit of historical time travel, just try to imagine Emma Goldman’s Secret Society of Anarchists filling the room. After all, this was once their headquarters. 

85 E 4th Street, Manhattan; (347) 441-4481

 

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Society of Illustrators and 128 Bar

Founded in 1901 by a group of nine artists and one business, the Society of Illustrators began as a venture to promote the art of illustration. After purchasing a stable building in 1939, the Society became something of a private club for illustrators and art directors. And while the building hosted the occasional exhibit, it wasn’t until 1981 that the building opened the doors to the public as the Museum of American Illustration hosted by the Society of Illustrators. 

Somewhere in the middle of all of that, 128 Bar was born. Originally a private bar in the fourth floor library, 128 was eventually revamped and refurbished on the 3rd floor—complete with Norman Rockwell’s “The Dover Coach” hanging in the center of it all. Donated by the artist in 1939, you’ll find plenty more Rockwell if you explore the building in its entirety. Not to mention works from Howard Pyle, James Montgomery Flagg and N.C. Wyeth, among others. With various exhibitions year-round–some featuring artists like Maurice Sendak and Robert Crumb– along with art education programs and competitions, 128 Bar is undeniably an art bar in the truest sense of the word; run by artists, for artists, with art at the center of it all. 

128 E 63rd Street, Manhattan; (212) 838-2560

Beverly’s

Okay, so it isn’t open yet. But with Beverly’s set to reopen on June 1st, we couldn’t possibly leave it off this list. 

An artist-run bar in the heart of the downtown NY art scene, Beverly’s was opened in 2013 by artist Leah Dixon alongside Dan Sutti, Chris Herity, Gabe Schulman, Leah Malone and Suvi Lehtinen. The original space, a narrow hole-in-the-wall on Essex and Hester, quickly became the go-to for pop-up dance parties and functioning exhibitions. With video art on its television screens and pieces from impressive artists hanging on the wall, it may even take you a second to realize you were in the middle of an exhibit as you order your $3 PBR. But that was the point; the art world is synonymous with nightlife. In a sense, the two fuel each other—whether in the form of networking, culture-seeking or merely as a way of paying the bills as a “starving artist”. 

And though the pandemic forced the closure of that original space, Beverly’s charged ahead. Hosting regular traveling exhibitions and searching for a permanent home, all with its iconic pink neon signage in tow. Luckily for us, they finally found it. A larger, permanent space is set to open in June that will allow for larger exhibitions and wilder dance parties. Get ready, New York! The art bar is back! 

297 Grand Street, Manhattan

WORDS Hillary Sproul 

IMAGERY @bemelmansbar

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The Roxy Hotel New York

2 6th Avenue
New York, NY 10013

212.519.6600 https://www.roxyhotelnyc.com
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