Open since 1947, The Carlyle Hotel is a New York City institution on par with the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty and Radio City Music Hall.
A playground for the super-rich and ultra-famous whether out-of-towners or nearby Upper East Siders, the center of the famed hotel’s culture is Bemelmans Bar. Taking its moniker after Ludwig Bemelmans (the creative mind behind the Madeline series of children’s books who painted its incredible walls), the standout watering hole has attracted a litany of impressive names who come for the spectacular cocktails, live music and all-around shimmering scene.
CHILLED spoke to bar manager Dimitrios Michalopoulos who gave us a peek inside Bemelmans, from its famed clientele (JFK and Jackie Kennedy), to how he utilized quarantine for cocktail experimentation.
What’s it like to work at one of the most famous bars in the world?
It makes you proud to work for a big company like Rosewood (who owns the hotel), a bar like Bemelmans and a hotel like The Carlyle. Everything has extremely high value. It makes me feel proud and makes me feel like I’m doing something important in my life. It gives me experience and confidence.
Your position at Bemelmans is bar manager. What was your path to a career in hospitality and how did you work your way up to The Carlyle?
I’ve been working in hospitality since I was 14. I’m from Greece and my cousin has hotels there. I lived in Athens, but every summer I would go to Rhodes (the Greek island) and I worked all the positions in the hotel. Out of all of them, the most interesting and exciting jobs for me was food and beverage, specifically the bars. So when I was 18, that’s when I decided what I wanted to do in life. From there I earned a Masters Degree in tourism management. I studied oncology for wines. I did a lot of reading and attended a lot of seminars. I used to work for the Starwood brand, which is now Marriott and helped open a hotel for them.
When did you arrive in the United States?
I came to the States in 2013. I just started wandering around. It doesn’t matter your experience in Greece when you come to New York. You have to start from scratch. I was working.
That’s incredible. You also had to teach yourself English, right?
Yes, I was studying English.
When was the moment you applied to work at The Carlyle? Was it always a goal?
Early on, I Googled what the best hotels in New York were and on that list was The Carlyle. I sent my resume and they replied back and I went in for an interview. The interview lasted almost all day. I was interviewed by everybody in the hotel. At the end of the day, they offered me the position. I started as an assistant in-room dining manager in 2016.
Bemelmans and The Carlyle in general have quite a history and they’re known for attracting an impressive clientele. Can you recall some memorable nights?
A lot of stories come to mind. Many of them! One day we had former President Clinton join us at the bar like a regular person. I was stunned. I tried my best to accommodate him at a really nice table. I greeted him and made sure everything was good and he was comfortable. I actually went to security because I never had a situation like that, so I wanted to ask (what the protocol was). His security said that he liked when people talked to him and didn’t mind taking pictures. One other night, the bar was super busy. It was a random Tuesday in October, and Mariah Carey in a long red dress, shows up.
I said to her, “Thanks for joining us, it’s a big honor, a big pleasure!” There were 10 people around her. She decided to go and sing with the piano player. She sang two or three songs and it was amazing. Everyone was taking pictures and videos, very excited. Paul Mcartney has also joined us many times and he always likes to talk to the pianist. He used to play the piano too, in the past. He’s a regular and whenever I see him, I say hello. He’s a legend and is not demanding at all. The waiters know what he likes, so all they’ll ask is: “Are you having the usual?”
Bemelmans was closed for fourteen months, but I understand you utilized that time to experiment? Can you talk about that period?
It was a great opportunity. For me, it was great because for the most part I stayed with my family at home. I have two little kids, two and four; I used to work a lot of hours and it’s not easy to be all together, so that was incredible. But on the other hand I was missing the Bemelmans. I really had the need to work on something. So for a lot of that time, I was working on cocktails and recipes. I was talking to Tony Moscow (the director of Food and Beverage) that I was thinking of coming in there to start mixing, tasting and experimenting. He said it was absolutely fine. I walked into the hotel and was emotional; everything was empty and the bar was closed.
It was the first time I ever saw the bar empty. I was saying to myself, “How is this even possible?” You couldn’t see anybody. So I set up my bar in the kitchen, which was the best. Everything was around me, and I brought my ice, glassware and bottles. I used to go there making my infusions, taking notes, mixing and tasting. That was the fun part. After, I set up a meeting with my director. We had a tasting and it went very well, they were excited but the most important was to see the happiness in their faces. It was the first sign everything was going to get better. I saw the joy in their eyes.
I know that you have some cocktails on the menu named after famous guests. Can you tell me about the Jackie O?
When we knew when we were going to open soon, we wanted to be ahead of the game to present something different for our guests. So we thought, what if we did a project where all of the cocktails link to the history of The Carlyle? I also had a lot of cocktails in my mind, so I did a lot of research about the hotel and put it all down on paper. Jackie Osnasis Kennedy used to stay at the hotel, as did JFK. So after my research about Jackie’s drink preferences. I found she liked fruity drinks, refreshing cocktails, and champagne. So that’s how I came up with the Jackie O. It’s a passion fruit-infused Vodka with some lime juice and champagne on top.
It’s all of the elements she likes in one drink. We also came up with a drink named after JFK, which is essentially a daiquiri. We never had them on the menu. Bemelmans is a special bar and Daiquiris are connected more to a frozen, tropical vibe without sophistication. But after doing research on JFK, that was his favorite drink and it will be the first daiquiri we have on the menu. We make it with Mount Gay XO rum from Barbados and Golden Falernum Liqueur, and it has flavors of almond, ginger, honey and herbs. There’s also Rose’s Lime, lime juice and simple syrup. We garnish it with lime leaf. The Jackie O and JFK are now our two biggest sellers.
Tell me about your twist on the Manhattan. The Carlyle is located in the borough, after all!
Well aside from the Kennedys, we have a Manhattan named after Bobby Short. He was one of the most well-known musicians who ever played at The Carlyle. I’ve only seen videos of him, but my staff worked with him and knew him personally. We knew that he liked Manhattans, so we came up with Bobby’s Manhattan. It has Santa Teresa 1796 rum, cherry, sweet vermouth and Angostura Bitters.
Can you share the recipe for one of your famed cocktails?
This one made for the veteran actress Elaine Stritch. She would come to Bemelmans and was one of our residents, too. So because of her personality we made a smoky martini named Elaine’s Smoky Martini. All you need is a mixing glass and a martini glass.
Elaine’s Smoky Martini
- Place 3 oz Ki No Bi / Kyoto Dry gin in a jigger. It’s from Japan and they’re really well known for their clean water. This gin is amazingly tasty. It has a nice citrus taste and is a little bit smoky. It’s very well balanced.
- Add a splash, about 1/4 oz., of Aberlour 16 year Single Malt. This is also very smoky.
- Finally, add 1/2 oz. of dry vermouth. We use Noilly Prat French Vermouth
- Add ice to a mixing glass. Start string. Stir, stir, stir. What gives you the balanced flavor is the right amount of dilution with the melting water. So you stir for about 30 seconds. Y
- Strain it with a julep strainer into a martini glass.
- Serve garnished with lemon peels. We have ones with the Bemelmans logo branded on them.