This might not have been the year to launch the new rooftop lounge atop the Empire Hotel. Cocktails that exceed $13 are always a dicey proposition, but with the country in an official recession, theyre now downright terrifying. Still, theres something to be said for singing along with the band while the Titanic is sinking. Maybe the best way to combat depression and fear over the current economic crisis is guzzling assorted cocktails while staring at the well-dressed audiences pouring out of Lincoln Center across the street.
Boasting a winterized rooftop, the lounge atop the Empire Hotel is a surprisingly spacious place to unwind after a stint at Lincoln Center or a long day of sightseeing. My boyfriend and I dropped in on a recent Tuesday night, just missing the jazz group that have made that night their own, but in time for plenty of dark 80s music over the sound system. Luckily, the lounge was so empty that we had no problem snagging a table near a roaring fire. Where the smoke actually goes, we have no idea, but it certainly took the edge off our chill.
Had we been a little braver, we could have also wrapped ourselves in one of the many blankets scattered on banquettes about the room. Though they were as soft as rabbit fur (our waitress told us they were actually just made of polyester), there was something that seemed a little icky about a bar blanket. And though the Empire Hotel Rooftop seems like a classy joint, every bar has bad apples who dont know how to hold their boozeor wait until they get back to their king-sized hotel beds.
We were warm enough even without an extra layer, of course, especially after the cocktails started coming. My Empire Sunset ($16) was made with Patrón Añejo, sweet vermouth, bitters, lime juice, orange juice and honey syrup, all of which gave the drink a surprisingly husky taste and a potent orange smell. Good as it was, at that price I would have appreciated a martini glass as large as my head, instead of the medium-sized, plastic version I was given. My boyfriends champagne cocktail ($15) was similarly sized, though the additions of cognac, bitters and a brown sugar cube contributed a maple syrup flavor that went well with the champagne; although the champers usual fizz was highly diluted by the fast-dissolving sugar cube.
A little high on the highly potent drinks, we went all out when ordering bar food. Though tempted by the foie gras PB&J, we decided on the Millionaires Deviled Eggs ($15), the latest contender on the growing list of tarted-up versions of the kitsch classic, and the Five Alarm Wagyu Chili ($12). Since the deviled eggs came with diced black truffles, caviar and gold flake, my hopes were running high, but I was disappointed. Perhaps if Id had the chance to sample more than the two that $15 buys you, I would have had more chance to savor them. But despite all the fancy trimmings, they were just deviled eggs. And they could have used a little paprika. Likewise, the Wagyu chili was a not-particularly-spicy bowl of expensive meat with cornbread crumbled on top.
But then our second round of cocktails arrived, banishing all disappointments and disillusionments. A seriously good Black Cherry Cosmo ($16) may have been the best cosmopolitan Ive ever tasted, while the Peppermint ($15) was a surprisingly refreshing drink that starts off like mouthwash and ends up a creamy, liquid peppermint stick that will get you drunk.
As we left, we glanced out the window to the left of the bar and truly appreciated the traffic near Lincoln Center for the first time. Only in a rooftop bar in Manhattan can traffic lights take on the glow of Christmas decorations. Or maybe that was just the Peppermints I had gulped down.
-- The Empire Hotel Rooftop 44 W. 63rd St. (between Broadway and Columbus Ave.), 212-265-7400.