New York City’s iconic Rainbow Room has reopened after a few years undergoing an extensive renovation, and it’s interesting to gauge the level of change in the world of beverages and cocktails by doing a sort of “then and now” comparison.
In the 1990s, there were few places in the world a drinker could get as well-made a cocktail as at the bar in the Rainbow Room, where Dale DeGroff plied his trade and set about acquainting a couple of generations of Americans about what were then considered obscure drinks, how to make them and how to enjoy them. As far back as the end of the Great Depression, visitors to the Rainbow Room could get a good drink, but by the time DeGroff, under the guidance of famed restaurant impresario Joe Baum, took over at the Rainbow Room, even the Manhattans in Manhattan weren’t very well made, for the most part, the Old-Fashioneds considered old fashioned. DeGroff turned many high income bar flies into cocktail enthusiasts there, by the time Joe Baum died and his company lost the contract to operate the space, the seeds had been planted for the cocktail renaissance.
Now, of course, customer expectations are much higher, and it’s doubtful that the Rainbow Room’s new bar, called SixtyFive and open to the public five nights a week, will get on the list of must places to visit for a great drink when in NYC. Not because their menu, a combination of classic and contemporary cocktails won’t be good - guests, we’re told in the opening release, “can imbibe classics such as the 1915 Gin & Tonic made with Dorothy Parker Gin, Lemon, Angostura bitters and Johnnie Ryan Tonic” or “Room With A View, made with Rittenhouse Rye, Green Chartreuse and Angostura Bitters.” It’s just that the ever-changing list of newly-opened drink emporia in New York, like in many other cities, means the competition is more fierce than ever, and getting attention difficult.
While the Rainbow Room has views to die for, here’s hoping they’ll be able to find someone like a contemporary DeGroff to create the scene. He orchestrated that bar in the 1990s, knew how to make drinks and manage the room so that people left thinking that it was theirs as much as anyone else’s. That’s a skill in short supply anywhere, and now that great drinks are available in many places, we find once again that the intangibles are what help make a place’s reputation and maintain its viability in a cut-throat market. Other bars lose their way, when guiding bartenders move on, when operators take their eye off the ball, or when bartenders with money in the business start picking up shifts elsewhere - always a bad sign.