There are two kinds of Times Square. There's Tourists' Times Square, the manic, glittering vortex of selfies and capitalism and knock-off cartoon characters that are somehow delightful. And there’s Locals' Times Square, the loudmouthed, sweaty vortex of some 310,000 daily migrants and knock-off cartoon characters that are most definitely frightful.
That is, until something unexpected opens—like a new, 7,800-square-foot rooftop bar. Then even locals may change their tune.
That’s the idea, at least, behind St. Cloud, the crowning asset in the historic Knickerbocker Hotel's $250 million modern redesign, set to open this June on the corner of Broadway and 42nd Street with cocktails, live music ,and soaring skyscraper views. Here’s a sneak preview.
Times Square, Elevated
In the works since 2011, the project is co-owned by FelCor Lodging Trust and Highgate Hotels, which signed design firm Gabellini Sheppard Associates (Top of the Rock, Rainbow Room, Edition Hotel Istanbul) to bring luster and life back to the building. Most recently an office building, the Knickerbocker was originally opened as a lavish party-hosting hotel in 1906 by John Jacob Astor IV, who died aboard the Titanic in 1912.
To reach St. Cloud, duck between a GAP store and a Hilton Garden Inn, pass doormen in double-breasted tail jackets and black bowler hats, and head to the elevators for the 16th floor. The bar is nestled behind the building's fully restored, grandiose Beaux-Arts façade and has both an indoor and outdoor section.
Indoors, guests are greeted with a 35-foot-long, black corian-topped bar, surrounded by contemporary leather couches, a dance floor, and a mobile DJ booth suggesting that things could get funky later—although by day the neutral charcoal and beige palate reads corporate, almost stiff. The feeling continues outside onto the 4,000-square-foot terrace, dwarfed on all sides by towering right-angle office spaces of such neighbors as Bank of America, Thompson Reuters, and the Paramount's time-is-money ticking clock.
Already, the Knickerbocker's managing director Jeff David says event buyouts for banks and law firms are rolling in. (Bouquets of Citibank-branded cake pops were sitting atop St. Cloud's indoor bar when I walked in.)
Sexier by Night
But by night, the space takes on a much sexier feel. Gabellini Sheppard's light-reflecting surfaces make the indoor lounges come alive, while the terrace's Nat Sherman cigar lounge, 23-foot wet bar, and wraparound leather banquets are suddenly plugged into Times Square's boundless blinking energy. Situated right under the Times Square Waterford Crystal ball, it’s not hard to imagine this will be the spot come New Year’s Eve.
In the meantime, what you want to do is book yourself a “Skypod”—three VIP lounges built into corners of the mansard-style roof that were previously use to hold flag poles. They seat 10, 12, or 18 people with a $1,000 food/drink minimum and are your best bet if you want to look down on the street-level milieu below. The rest of the terrace space is set back from the edge of the building, so the effect isn’t so much as lording above Times Square as it is floating 200 feet high within it.
Cocktails, Cigars, Hot Dogs
"To honor the hotel's history, we're making the classics," said Michelin-starred chef and restaurateur Charlie Palmer of his St. Cloud custom cocktail menu: martinis, manhattans, and old-fashioneds ranging from $17 to $30. Palmer’s fine-dining restaurant Charlie Palmer at the Knick occupies the fourth floor.
A signature "Classic Knickerbocker" martini, for instance, will be served 1920s-style with Tanqueray gin (instead of vodka), dry and sweet vermouth, and a dash of orange and lemon bitters. "We're going back to the original concept of the martini," added Palmer, via phone. In a “Blood & Sand,” late-1800s favorite Cherry Heering brandy pairs with Dewars Scotch for devilishly sweet smokiness.
By design, Palmer's cocktails—in addition to the bar’s comprehensive menu of scotch, bourbon, and port wines—are intended to pair well with St. Cloud's Nat Sherman cigars, ranging from $10 to $34 a piece. The "Cigar Lounge," an increasingly rare phenomenon in New York's antismoking age, is a 25-person seated section of the outdoor terrace, satisfying city compliance simply by maintaining a distance of a few feet from the rest of the roof.
Comparatively, the roof's food pairings feel odd. Massive wagyu hot dog and wasabi tuna tacos may front premium ingredients, but at the end of the day they’re still hot dogs and tacos, not exactly a cigars-and-brandy level of sophistication.
For something more upscale, there’s also a "Waterford Crystal Lounge," where Dom Pérignon champagne will be served in Waterford glasses, under a Waterford chandelier with glittering crystal plates of caviar. Sure it's hyper brand placement, but why not? It's fun. Or, when St. Cloud's hired entertainers show up, it will be. (This is Times Square, after all.)
Not a Nightclub
"Downstairs at the Knick, we have sultry women's vocals in a softer tone. St. Cloud has to have more energy. It has to sound sexy," explained Jeff David, the Knickerbocker's managing director. He’s currently auditioning performers, including violinists, DJs, and even magicians. As yet unannounced, this roster of entertainers will roam St. Cloud's rooftop, playing up its upscale atmosphere.
Still, David wants me to know it's not going to be a nightclub—even though getting in might mean having to wait behind a doorman's velvet rope. "There will be no red plastic cups and thumping music, but we do expect queues to line up for this level of sophistication," he said. "We're not competing with Bubba Gump and Carmines."
St. Cloud's sheer size is a trump card, giving it cachet over many of New York's 98 other rooftop bars. But a few notable newcomers are also serving up creative cocktails with glamorous skyline views—and, well, they're not in Times Square.
Bar SixtyFive's 950-square-foot wraparound terrace, opened this April, is 65 stories high and overlooks pretty much all of Central Park. Situated just across the hall from Rockefeller Center's Rainbow Room, it also serves a long list of pricey ($20 to $28) throwback cocktails.
The Peninsula New York's chaise lounge sun terrace, at 2,700 square feet, reopened in May and offers a wellness-lover's way to take in the city’s skyline and get a summer tan. (It can also be booked for private cocktail parties.)
And hotly anticipated for July, Above 60 Soho. While it hosts only 100 people (compared with St. Cloud's capacity for 239), its fashionable hotel guests and members-only policies are giving it an exclusive appeal.