by Daniel Cappello
“They seated me,” texted a recent diner at the newly revamped King Cole Bar—now the King Cole Bar & Salon—to her dinner partner, who was running late, “behind an urn!” And by “urn,” she was referring to one of the rather dramatic “metal vases,” as they have been called by design connoisseurs—outsize, topiary-stuffed versions of julep-cup vases mounted high on rich wooden pedestals, looking like boxwoods fit for Versailles, part of the modern-décor infusion that accompanied the renovation of the legendary St. Regis bar and eatery. The crisp white walls of the dining space, or salon, are still trimmed with gilded moldings, and crystal chandeliers still reign in all their glory from the scenic ceiling, embellished with a painted rendering of the sky. But new are the graphic carpeting below, the polished-nickel vases, and their imposing larger cousins, stationed in such a way that a Hollywood actress or old-money matriarch angling for anonymity can hide out behind one of them quite comfortably.
The space has always been a somewhat tricky one. The beloved bar, illustrated by Maxfield Parrish’s iconic “Old King Cole” mural, has long been a haunt of the well-heeled uptown crowd, mixing with midtown moguls and hotel travelers fortunate enough to call the regal St. Regis their home away from home. But the dining room next door has always felt somewhat disparate from the fun-loving King Cole Bar. During the height of the midtown-hotel-houses-Michelin-starred-French-chef era of not so long ago, Alain Ducasse upped the ante of the eating experience to European heights with Adour. Then a somewhat staid dining room tried to simulate what an archetypal “St. Regis” restaurant ought to be. But there was always the looming mural in the background: Old King Cole, that merry old soul, calling for his pipe, his bowl, and his fiddlers of three. He also seemed to be calling to patrons in the restaurant, as if to tell them they were missing out on something better in the bar.
Now, thanks to acclaimed chef and restaurateur John DeLucie, the King Cole Bar & Salon feels more at one. DeLucie is the master of ambiance and aura: he awakened the neo-speakeasy wave of destination dining with The Waverly Inn, The Lion, and Bill’s. He proved equally adept in more uptown environs, polishing off the swank Crown on East 81st Street. With the new King Cole Bar & Salon, DeLucie marries his downtown chic with his more uptown élan, finding an appropriate yet approachable accommodation for the ritzy St. Regis and its discerning clientele.
The signature “Red Snapper” cocktail—a name bestowed by the St. Regis on the much-too-vulgar “Bloody Mary” in 1934, when the drink was perfected and introduced here at the bar—is still a main draw. Perhaps nothing pairs better with this spiced tomato juice–and–vodka cocktail than a towering seafood platter. The Royal—a medley of oysters, lobster, crab legs, shrimp, and clams—is a semi-indulgent way to go; really indulgent is the Grand Royal, finished off with Osetra caviar for a mere $550.
DeLucie’s signature truffled mac-and-cheese, once made famous downtown, is now exclusive to his St. Regis location. Only DeLucie could sneak in an at-home comfort staple like his grandmother’s meatballs with an au-courant take on the trendiest salad du jour—the ubiquitous kale salad (though here it’s a Tuscan kale Caesar, with “hand-torn” croutons). Tuna tartare is taken into the 2010s with Asian pear and Sicilian pistachio, and the filet of beef wrapped in Applewood bacon is good enough to tempt the vegetable-pledged back to meat, even if just for a taste. And all of this before a treat for dessert—or opting to skip straight to after-dinner drinks over in the rollicking bar.