“Work is the curse of the drinking classes.” -Oscar Wilde
I won’t get into the broader implications of my having clocked so many hours in one corner or another of so many hotel bars, from the glamorous to the insalubrious, the screamingly trendy to the patently uncool. Let’s just say that I am a traveler: Virtually one night in my four is spent in a bed other than my own. (I know what you’re thinking. Would that it were true…) I also suffer from a sort of reverse xenophobia, an insatiable need to pull strangers, especially foreign strangers, into my social vortex, whether for five minutes or a lifetime.
Now, in our daily lives we tend to wind up around people who would tend to wind up around us. They’ll likely fit within a fairly circumscribed ideology and geography, because we’re meeting them in contrived situations: dinner parties, gallery openings, business socializing and so on.That social construct, however, completely unravels in the context of a hotel, where a hundred rooms might contain people from ninety different places who are there for fifty different reasons. And while people you encounter in the lobby are generally on their way to somewhere else, those in the bar have settled in and are more likely to be open to meeting and chatting with a stranger.
On my most recent visit to Paris, I decided to take a romp through the city’s most fabled, fabulous and fascinating hotel bars, for no reason other than to take in the social parade, if you will, and report back. I was, as you can imagine, hardly disappointed.
The endlessly chic
Costes Bar at Hôtel Costes 239 rue St-Honoré, 1er?01.42.44.50.00?Métro: Madeleine
A decade on, this is still the molten core of Parisian cool. I noticed that it’s easy to spot those who’ve come just to tell their friends back home they’ve “been to Le Costes.” They walk in braced and tense, waiting for the sharp backhand of attitude that has been enshrined in legend. Alas, the legend turned out to be myth, as I walked in alone during a harried Friday lunchtime and was cheerily marched to a spot by the fireplace. And my young, nouveau-punk waiter served me with an almost unceasing smile. Now, it’s worth going to the Costes for the sheer fabulousness alone, but the flamboyant neo-Empire décor by superstar designer Jacques Garcia is also pure magic. Tableau: Catherine Deneuve chatting up an utterly enthralled young fashionista.
The terribly sexy
Bar du Crillon at Hôtel de Crillon 10 place de la Concorde, 8e?01.44.71.15.02?Métro: Concorde
Small, flashy and rather glam, this is the place to go if you’re a relentless eavesdropper. I plopped down on one of the magnificent, cushy, red-velvet seats and snickered to myself about the sheer, sparkly fabulousness all around me, including the disco-y César mirror mosaic on the front of the bar and behind it. My bartender, Gilles, recommended the Baccarat: rose champagne with cranberry and lime. But this is where the now fabled gin-and-champagne-based French 75 was conceived, so it might be silly to order anything else. Tableau: An attractive yet somber English couple sipping cocktails in stony silence until their friends arrived to snap them out of their discomfort with their surroundings.
The class act
Bar Fontainebleau at Hôtel Meurice 228 rue de Rivoli, 1er?01.43.16.30.30?Métro: Concorde
Other hotel bars get more ink, but this is surely the most sublimely elegant cocktailing experience in the capital. I found myself imagining that decades of modernization had not yet occurred and I was in Gertrude Stein’s prewar Paris. There’s no dress code, mind you, but it would be a shame not to arrive suited and booted for the experience. The décor is a bit on the masculine side, with leather club chairs, dark wood paneling, neoclassical detailing and Empire-style tables. The (literally) crowning touch is the trompe l’œil ceiling with its floating clouds; an enormous mirror behind the bar reflects this “sky,” making it appear to go on forever. The whole scene looks out onto the hotel’s magnificent Jardin d’Hiver, where tea is served in the afternoon. The cocktail list is nigh apoplexy inducing, but I suggest the Fontainebleau (be warned, it is ostentatiously green and very powerful), the Rivoli Side and the reverently named Gala and Dalí. Bar manager Pascal revealed that “We have had Sting and Madonna here recently, but we do have to be discreet about our celebrity guests.” Tableau: A bohemian-looking lesbian couple enthusiastically debating French literature.
The temple of style
Bar du Plaza Athénée 25 av. de Montaigne, 8e?01.53.67.66.67?Métro: Alma-Marceau
If you had to choose one splurge, I cannot emphasize strongly enough that this must be it. Grown-up yet playful, chic yet friendly, classic yet hip and newly mod, the Bar du Plaza Athénée might be the most perfect hotel bar in the world. Sexed up in 2000 by venerable designer Patrick Jouin, the bar’s historic, architecturally listed interior is complemented by nouveau Louis XV bar stools, miniature Murano chandeliers, massive surreal frames with no pictures in them and a bar that lights up when your cocktail is placed before you. Bar manager Laurent revealed that their celeb clientèle leans a bit toward rock-star, noting that “Beyoncé, Pharrell Williams and Marilyn Manson have all been in recently.” Vincent, the bartender, enthusiastically took me on a ride through the bar’s outlandish signature cocktails, including the Rose Royale (champagne and raspberry purée) and the Bubblegum, made with ice cream and actual bubblegum and featuring three levels-solid, liquid and gas. They also make a mean lychee martini, B52 and mojito. The crowd was disarmingly friendly: I made friends with a honeymooning American couple as well as two Brits who invited me out for a night of clubbing. Tableau: One very normal-looking gent surrounded by six model types-had he won a contest?
The utterly discreet
Bar Anglais at Hôtel Raphael 17 av. Kleber, 16e?01.53.64.32.00?Métro: Kleber
As trendies scramble from one hot-spot-of-the-moment to another, famous types seeking peace and discretion can be found mingling with guests in this cozy bar. Just a block from the Arc de Triomphe, the Raphael seems almost hidden away, trying not to call attention to itself. Every seat in the regal, Regency-style bar was taken the evening I visited, but I got the feeling that Brad Pitt could have walked in and no one would have blinked an eye. Bar manager Bertrand was almost a cliché of the amiable host, radiating positive energy throughout the room. Still, when I pressed him about famous guests, he simply said, “So many from politics and cinéma-too many to name,” politely honoring the privacy the hotel promises its celebrity guests. When I inquired about specialty cocktails he simply rolled his eyes and said: “We make the best martinis. I prefer the classics.” For the more adventurous, I recommend the Raphaelite and the Varsovie. Tableau: Two sexy young British journalists eagerly interviewing a French politician.
The gentleman’s bar
The Hemingway Bar at the Ritz 38 rue Cambron, 1er?01.43.16.30.60?Métro: Concorde
Legend goes a long way, especially when it centers on probably the most towering American literary figure of the 20th century. Hemingway spent so much time propping up the bar at the Ritz, they eventually gave it his name in tribute. You might be surprised by how not spectacular it is, more understatedly masculine than romantic or precious, decidedly free of glitz and pomp. I went for the same reason that many people do, to pretend to somehow commune with a literary ghost. Still, there is something very right about the place, especially if you prefer an unfussy, classic cocktailing experience. And bartender Colin Field is generally regarded as Paris’s most skilled mixologist. Tableau: Two stylish young women tearing through the day’s shopping scores.
The impossibly romantic
Dokhan’s Bar at Hôtel Trocadéro Dokhan’s 117 rue Lauriston, 16e?01.76.64.15.05?Métro: Boissière
At this bar tucked away in the 16th, champagne is the religion, with du jour recommendations and a connoisseur’s selection. The intimate, stunningly conceived interior can only be described as modern-baroque, with distressed paneling and gold detailing. Come after dining at the nearby Cristal Room for what will undoubtedly be the most romantic night of your life.
The suspiciously mod
The Bar at Murano Urban Resort 13 blvd du Temple, 3e?01.42.71.20.00?Métro: Filles-du-Calvaire
It’s certainly hip, and there’s something playful about the mad, ’70s-ish riot of colors, to be sure. However, this is for those who don’t mind being in Paris but feeling like they’re in Miami.
Lutèce and Ernest Bars at Hôtel Lutetia 45 blvd Raspail, 6e?01.49.54.46.46?Métro: Rue-du-Bac
An awe-inspiring, glass déco ceiling and Sonia Rykiel’s lavish, extravagant décor make for what is certainly the most visually magnificent of all Paris hotel bars. Jazz nights feel almost a bit salacious, as if everyone might be taking it upstairs at the end of the night.
The anglophile’s choice
Duke’s Bar At Hôtel Westminster 13 rue de la Paix, 2e?01.42.61.57?Métro: Opéra
Intimate, clubby, very English, with lots of green leather and a massive, ornate fireplace, Duke’s is the sort of place where brandies and cigars are the order of the day.
The new kitsch
Ice Kube at Kube Hôtel 1-5 passage Ruelle, 18e?01.42.05.20.20?Métro: Marx-Dormoy
It’s referred to as Paris’s “first ice bar,” as if to suggest there are, um, more on the way. Yes, it’s made entirely of ice, and it’s clever, fun and painfully hip. Still, it could just as well be in Helsinki.
Ken Scrudato, founder of the theoretical political and cultural cartel known as the Champagne Socialist Party, spends troubling amounts of time locked in verbal battle with ideological foes. He writes for publications such as Black Book, Flaunt, SOMA, Filter and Travelintelligence.com.