The Seductive Allure of the Hotel Bar

Anonymity is only part of a hotel bar’s allure
Take an elevator and go to your room: The erotic convenience of the situation is palpable Photograph by Peter Sutherland

My favorite hotel bar in the world? Whichever one I happen to be in. Beyond that, I reject the question. The question misses the point entirely. The key thing about a hotel bar, any hotel bar, is that it doesn’t matter where it is. That’s exactly what distinguishes it from a bar that is not a hotel bar.

Take, for the purpose of comparison, the Brooklyn Tavern. The thing about the Brooklyn Tavern is that it is, as the name suggests, in Brooklyn. And not only that: It’s on a particular corner in Brooklyn, the corner, to be precise, where the Brooklyn Tavern is to be found. The only way to be there is to be on that exact corner of Brooklyn. That is what I mean by a bar bar. Whereas a hotel bar can be anywhere (just now the Riad El Fain in Marrakech, as it happens).

I’ve had loads of great evenings in hotel bars all over the world, and often I can’t remember the name of the bar, or the hotel—sometimes not even the city or country in which it was located. There was that one in Seoul. An absolute classic of its kind: high up on the whatever-it-was floor, overlooking a sprawling, gleaming metropolis of whose geography we were entirely ignorant and, to be frank, thoroughly uninterested. Or the hotel in San Francisco, whose name I forget, right next to the other hotel, the W, near SFMOMA. Or the bar in the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York, before it was given a big makeover. It was on the ground floor, that bar, but it felt like a basement.

In each of these much loved, dimly remembered places there are certain identifying details—certain arrangements of lights, décor, and tables, maybe even a few site-specific twists to the drinks—but the essential thing is that you’re either perched up high, enjoying a commanding view of the urban night, or you’re cocooned in what feels like a cellar or, ideally, bunker, indifferent to the rumble of artillery as the Red Army approaches the outskirts of Berlin or whichever other spot to which your dreams of world domination have been obliged to shrink.

What about the bar of the Bauer Hotel in Venice, you ask. The Bauer has a terrace, so you’re neither in a basement nor on a high floor, and it’s every bit as geo-specific as the Brooklyn Tavern. With vaporetti churning along the Grand Canal and water taxis swishing past and pulling up at the hotel, no one could ever be in any doubt as to where they were. Yes, those details are important, and while I take the neither-high-nor-basement point, your argument is easily turned against you. The terrace of the Bauer enjoys commanding views while seeming at risk of being submerged by the canal so that it is that rare thing: a lofty perch with aspects, if such a thing makes sense, of an open-air basement that happens to be at sea level! More importantly, the Bauer experience is universal. In honor of this hotel bar that seems to contradict my little theory while actually proving it—and where, to be honest, I dreamed it up in the first place—I call it the Bauer Hypothesis.

It begins with the proposition/observation that the majority of people in the bar are either staying in the hotel itself or are in Venice for work or are on vacation. The only people in the bar who live in the city are serving drinks. In this respect it is wholly different from the Brooklyn Tavern, where the majority of the people live nearby so that the distinction between staff and customer (often on first-name terms with each other) is hazy. The clientele of the hotel bar is transitory. But everyone likes to feel at home in a city they are visiting, so the hotel bar becomes their local for a couple of nights. And since everyone is there for only a few nights they feel compelled to make the most of it. This means that everyone stays up drinking later than they normally would. The mere fact of being here at all makes everyone feel special.

As someone who came of age—i.e., started drinking—in England in the late 1970s, I experienced the full oppressive weight of the licensing laws: the dread certainty that however good a time you were having it had to come to an end at 11:00 prompt—unless you were a guest in a hotel. This gave hotel bars, even those in England, the exotic attraction of abroad. To drink in a hotel bar was to be permitted to live like an outlaw, to be granted immunity. A hotel bar was a place from which you could not be extradited and sent back to the restricted world of pub opening hours. (Perhaps this was the deep origin of the Bauer Hypothesis, the conviction that it didn’t matter where the hotel bar was; all that mattered was that it was—and that I was in it.) We can generalize further. If pub life is defined by the hated call of “Time,” hotel bars are places where there is no time.

At this stage, a distinction needs to be introduced between a bar in a hotel where you are actually staying and one where you just happen to be drinking. In both cases there is an enhanced sense of erotic potential (because everyone you are drinking with is away from home, on shore leave, and therefore beyond the reach of the usual moral laws of life). But to enjoy the bar to the full, you should be staying in the hotel. If you are not, then at some point you will look at your watch (the return of time!) and make a decision about when to leave the premises. Leaving will involve a journey that will take a certain amount of time.

If you are staying in the hotel where you are drinking, on the other hand, you will not have to go “home”—because you’re there already. All you will have to do is call it a night—and the chances are you will not call it a night until there is no more night to be had. Take an elevator and go to your room: It’s as simple as that. After a certain point—after the people staying elsewhere have braced themselves for the journey and left—there will just be you and a number of other people who all know they are only an elevator away from their rooms. The erotic convenience of the situation is palpable. It is quite different from a typical date that tends to take place in the urban equivalent of wartime Switzerland: neutral territory in which either party can claim sanctuary without fuss or negotiation. How many romantic evenings have dissolved because of the prospect or necessity of the cooling-off interval of a taxi or subway ride between the place where the decision was made—the bar—and the place where it needs to be acted upon (your apartment or theirs)? In a hotel bar, that interlude of uncertainty and reflection dissolves. In answer to the tacit question “Shall we,” “Yes” segues immediately into “We are,” whereas in real life it so often turns into “Maybe we shouldn’t.”

If this romantic aspect of the hotel bar is self-generating, it turns out, ultimately, to be self-defeating. You are so close to your room, it is so easy to go to your room with someone else—or vice versa—that there is no hurry to do so. You may as well stay and have more drinks. And so, as often as not, the narrative of an evening that seemed at one point to be gliding toward a shared destination clearly marked “Erotic” slides toward one that reads, through a glass darkly, “Alcoholic.” If you do try to get into someone else’s room, it may be the result not of invitation but befuddlement, an inability to distinguish one identical door from another. Which is fitting, in a way, since the essence of the hotel bar is that it doesn’t matter which one you are in—or where.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.