Of Monkeys and Madmen

Photography by Jena Cumbo

Despite its contemporary feel and “It Bar” status, the Monkey Bar has actually existed, in various incarnations, for decades. In the thirties, as the Second World War loomed large, a new boîte opened in the lobby of the luxurious Elysée Hotel on East 54th St in midtown Manhattan and immediately became a favored destination for local advertising men, artists and politicians in need of a little respite from their grim daily realities.

Over the next seven-plus decades, the bar fell in and out of favor. But like a true New York institution, it managed to survive the whims of fashion and society until 2009, when it was rescued by a group of passionate locals – including Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter – and transformed into a destination for the creative class once again.

Walking into the Monkey Bar you feel an immediate sense of the history of the place. The long brown wooden bar to the right beckons, and you imagine the endless series of romances and business negotiations that have been navigated on the plush stools surrounding it. As you walk through the bar, the main dining room comes into view like an oasis, its gold and red floors and walls offset by gleaming white tablecloths. An enormous wall mural by famed illustrator Edward Sorel depicts bold-faced names from bygone eras. The space is new; transformed by Carter and crew into a twenty-five-plus table societal melting pot.

Table 8, a prize-to-be-won banquette, is front and center against the back wall. It’s reserved for the affluent set – Madonna has been known to walk straight through the place unattended and claim it. Tonight, perhaps, Marc Jacobs will dine off of it.

But even with its recent transformation, The Monkey Bar is rebranding itself yet again. A new chef and various consultants, including restaurateur Ken Friedman of Spotted Pig and Breslin fame, and Julie Reiner from Lani Kai and Clover Club, have joined forces with the Carters to give the place a modern revamp, where fancy ice and homemade cordials allow bartenders to offer more than just the standard Rob Roy.

There’s a slight strangeness to the Monkey Bar that allows you to let your guard down. Perhaps it’s the paintings of humanoid-looking monkeys in various non-simian settings in the bar, or the brass monkey figurines in the dining room. The mint malt balls that are delivered with each check, and which the staff present as “monkey balls,” certainly add another level of whimsy to the surroundings. It may be located in straight-laced Midtown and serve $16 martinis, but there’s a downtown, only-in-New-York atmosphere that the Carters, and their new partners, must be patting themselves on the back for discovering and making their own.

– Adam Pollack


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