Drinking With History

There are thousands of bars in the U.S. but only a handful are eligible to be included in the National Trust Historic Hotels of America

Slide Show >>

When it was announced that New York City's Plaza Hotel would be shutting down in 2005 while it converted to a combination of condos and guest rooms, thousands of bar aficionados around the world must have nearly fallen off their stools.

Not because they would necessarily miss the Plaza's rooms, which were getting pretty shabby, or its restaurants (though high tea in the Palm Court was a ritual for mothers and daughters visiting the city). No, it was because the famed Oak Bar was closing down.

With its enviable ground-floor views of Central Park South, the cavernous watering hole has been hallowed ground for generations of undergraduates since the days of F. Scott Fitzgerald, even though—or perhaps because—the drinking age has been raised to 21. Although it had lost some of its panache in recent times, the Oak Bar was still considered one of the most beautiful places in New York to sip a scotch and soda, thanks to its oversize oil paintings and oak walls.


 Fortunately, however, the Plaza's new owners say that the Oak Bar will return without "any structural changes" when the hotel reopens later this year. Still, the reality that the Oak Bar could have closed forever is a sad indication of the state of hotel bars these days.

Once, bars in the best hotels served as a de facto clubhouse for travelers. These were places where the bartenders could take an order in at least five languages and the guests could usually depend on finding someone interesting to trade stories with while they relaxed after a day on the road.

To be sure, as more hotels begin to see bars as a substantial revenue center—according to Hendersonville (Tenn.)-based Smith Travel Research, beverage sales in hotels average 5.1% of revenue, or nearly $23,000 per available room—hotels in urban areas that cater to young professionals, such as Starwood Hotel & Resorts (HOT) W chain, are creating bars that attract a local nightlife scene, leaving hotel guests to fight for a seat.


  The result is that while bars are now, like restaurants and spas, a way for hotels to attract a wider range of customers, many older bars are actually weathering the onslaught quite well. For some bars, change is a good thing. Take, for example, the bar at Claridge's in London, arguably one of the finest hotels in Europe. For years the bar was more of a lounge, with the actual bar itself being tucked away out of site, and the atmosphere was decidedly sleepy. However, after the hotel finished a $78 million restoration in 2001, the old bar was replaced by a much more stylish art deco bar, which now serves as one of the most popular nightspots in Mayfair.

For the most part, though, the great old hotel bars remain relatively undisturbed, except for a few discreet modernizations and refurbishments like the occasional coat of fresh paint or new carpeting.

Which are these historic hotel bars? They can be found all over the U.S., from the Babcock&Story Bar in the Hotel del Coronado in Coronado, Calif., where parched guests have been finding liquid refreshment at the original 46-foot mahogany bar that was shipped around Cape Horn from Philadelphia in 1888, to Peacock Alley in Manhattan's Waldorf-Astoria.

These are just two of the historic bars cited by the National Trust Historic Hotels of America, a program of the Washington D.C.-based National Trust for Historic Preservation. The more than 200 hotels that have been recognized must be at least 50 years old, and and enrolled on the National Register of Historic Places, a list of buildings of historic significance selected for the faithfulness with which their integrity, architecture, and ambience has been preserved.

The Historic Hotels of America recognize 21 bars around the country. Among them are the Menger Hotel bar in San Antonio, which in 1887 was modeled after the bar in the House of Lords pub in London and where Theodore Roosevelt is said to have recruited many of his Rough Riders for service in the Spanish-American War. Others with equally colorful histories include the J-Bar in the Hotel Jerome in Aspen, Colo.; Oliver's Lounge in the Mayflower Park Hotel in Seattle; and The Silver Dollar Bar in the Wort Hotel in Jackson Hole, Wyo., which features a serpentine, mahogany-rimmed bar inlaid with 2,032 never-circulated 1921 silver dollars from the Denver Mint.

To read more about these and other historic bars, click here.