The Plaza Hotel's Oak Bar Wins Luxist's Editors' Choice Award (with Video)
One evening at the Oak Bar in New York's Plaza Hotel, a patron noticed a diamond ring on the floor and alerted the manager. Remembering that a customer seated in the area had just departed, the manager called the room number on the bill. Within minutes the guest was downstairs to collect her ring-and promptly ordered a bottle of Dom Perignon for the manager as a token of thanks. "You don't understand," she said. "That ring is worth over $1 million."
Such is the aura of the Oak Bar, Luxist's Editors' Choice award winner for best in entertainment. Nestled in the northwest corner of the Plaza Hotel, the bar has been serving well-heeled guests-with a few extended breaks for prohibition and various renovations-for over a century.
Walk into the ancient room today and you'll find rich wood paneling surrounding sumptuous banquettes, vast murals of Central Park mirroring the actual park that sits on the other side of enormous picture windows, and on any given night a clientele whose collective wealth is likely enough to buy a medium-sized country.
In that regard, not much has changed at the Oak Bar since 1907, when it played host to branch offices of six of New York's largest brokerage firms. Sometime between then and prohibition, the space merged with the neighboring Oak Room restaurant and began serving drinks before being turned into offices for firm E.F. Hutton & Co. around 1920.
It wasn't until two years after Conrad Hilton purchased the Plaza Hotel in 1943 that the room became a bar once again. The Oak Bar soon gained a reputation as something of a gentlemen's clubhouse, thick with cigar smoke and deep, whiskey-fueled laughter. The bar did not allow women inside until 1969, and it remained a smoking bar until New York mayor Michael Bloomberg instituted tough anti-smoking laws in 2005. Cigars continued to smolder until a New York Times reporter noted the practice in print.
"We got slapped by the authorities," recalls Jose Arbona, a bartender who's been working at the Oak Room for 19 years. "The smoking laws changed everything."
Even greater changes came in 2005, when Israeli billionaire Yitzhak Tshuva forked over $875 million to buy the hotel with the goal of converting much of it to co-op apartments and retail space. The Oak Bar was immediately designated a landmark by local authorities to prevent it from being turned into a department store. Closed for three and a half years, the bar re-opened in autumn of 2008 with a refreshed look.
"The walls came up about three shades lighter," says Arbona. "I guess removing 70 years of nicotine will do that."
Today, the bar boasts a new generation of famous guests. Frequent patrons include Jerry Springer, Kelsey Grammer, and Lady Gaga, who recently dropped by to sing four jazz standards to a crowd of amazed onlookers. Indeed, the $19 cocktails are more a ticket to the show-at least, that's the way to think of it if you'd rather not face the fact that you've purchased one average martini for the price of three.
After all, a trip to the Oak Bar is a journey through the history of New York's social stratosphere, a bar where guests can mingle with the ghosts of Astors, Vanderbilts and Rockefellers of the past, and maybe a few of the present.
"No matter how much anybody tries to renovate it," says Arbona, "it will always be the Oak Bar."