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 Do Not Disturb

michael FROM NOME TO HONG KONG
IN ONE EASY SLURP


By Michael Matthews

April 22, 2004 -- If I were a betting man, I'd have wagered that my recent column on bed bugs would have had readers dispatching a frenzy of E-mails to this portal. But no, hardly a bite. On the other hand, my column on Norman at the Ritz-Carlton New York and how a great bartender makes a great hotel bar brought E-mails from around the world. Literally hundreds.

Chuck Quinn in Dallas wrote to report that Norman had been making his cocktails for 15 years on his infrequent trips to New York. "The man's memory is incredible," he wrote. Quinn and others also mentioned the names of some of their other favorite hotel watering holes and recounted some pretty salubrious tales. Colin of the Hemmingway Bar at the Ritz in Paris received more than a couple of mentions. So did the bars at Dukes and the Stafford in London. Even the bar at the New York Sheraton got a mention for the particular care they give to female travelers.

I would now be violating the columnist's code if I didn't mention some of my favorite hotel bars.

The first two are technically not in hotels, but are unique in their own way. In the 1960s, I was escorting travel agents on familiarization trips promoting a then-fledgling airline called "Alaska." We took them to Nome in winter. Believe me, not many people go to Nome in winter. The only stop--there's not much to see except a lot of snow--was an amazing place called The Board of Trade Bar. In those days it was open 24 hours a day. Its patrons seemed to drink, sleep, drink, sing, drink, dance, drink, fall asleep--and never leave. There was even a dwarf named Shorty Collins. He played the fiddle endlessly and never seemed to stop until he was too drunk to stand.

A reader in Nome tells me that the Board of Trade is still going strong although about ten years ago, upon the arrival of a new Methodist minister, its hours were curtailed to 20 a day.

A close second in my non-hotel bar list is the Red Lips Bar, located just behind the famed Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong. It was started by an American serviceman at the end of the Korean War as a place for retired ladies of the night to work. Not at their former trade, for they were all well past their prime, but serving drinks. As you pass through a beaded curtain, you enter a tiny bar with low, red lights, banquettes and cold beer. You'll have a great evening--but don't take a date unless you know her very well.

On a far more respectable note, my choice for world's best hotel bar is the Library Bar at the Lanesborough in London. Situated at Hyde Park Corner, this incredibly expensive watering hole is presided over by Salvatore Calebrese, barman supreme, author, television celebrity, salesman par excellence and the world's foremost mixologist.

The Library Bar stocks one of the world's greatest collections of Cognac and Armagnac, some selling for more than $1,000 a shot. If one is interested, and most serious brandy drinkers are, Salvatore will give you the history of the particular bottle from which you are partaking. "Bottled in 1815 after Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo," he will explain. "This one's from the same year that Marie Antoinette's head rolled into a basket." If brandy is not your call, then read one of Salvatore's many books and consider imbibing one of the 1,000 cocktails invented by the maestro himself while you smoke a perfectly legal Havana cigar. Drop by, say "hello" and tell him Michael sent you.

(If your pocketbook doesn't extend to the Library, try the Grenadier Pub just down the street. Have a steak-and-kidney pie and a pint of Director's Bitter, all for under 10 quid. Ask for Patrick, the gnome-like chef. Tell him Michael sent you.)

There is a tie for my next favorite hotel bars--and both are in the same hotel. Each is totally different, but both have amazing service and barmen who never forget you or, perhaps, can fake it better than most. I'm talking about the Captain's Bar and the Chinnery Bar at the incomparable Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Hong Kong.

The Captain's Bar is just off the lobby and is always packed with expatriates, locals and tourists, all usually at the upper end of the financial spectrum. The bon vivant, David Tang of Shanghai Tang, escaping from his China Club across the street, or the travel writer and best-selling author, Simon Winchester, are likely to be seen holding court when in town. In fact, anyone who is anyone or going anywhere will stop by eventually. There is even a postage-stamp-sized dance floor.

A couple of floors above is the Chinnery Bar. Here one is less likely to see a tourist but, rather, the upwardly mobile, younger, Hooray Henry type. The Chinnery was men-only until about 10 years ago, but that's another story. Copies of Chinnery paintings (the British artist famed for his scenes of Asia, especially Hong Kong) hang on the walls. The seats are leather and the whole bar is a caricature of a London club, but the food is better.

Both bars still capture the essence of Hong Kong in its pre-1997 days. And, dammit, I think they are the only two bars in the world where your beer is served in a chilled silver tankard. Top that!

So there are my favorite hotel bars. What are yours? Let's see if we get more responses than bed bugs.

This column originally appeared at joesentme.com.

Copyright 1993-2004 by Michael Matthews. All rights reserved.