Six of Manhattan’s Best Bar Murals As I Chomp at the Bit to Return to Them
Inside Caravaggio. Photo Annie Armstrong
There is a certain style of drawing and painting that I associate with drinking in New York. During the quar, art in its vein is what I’ve been craving as I yearn for my former lifestyle as a freewheeling flâneuse about the city. I feel it in the felicity of Henri de Toulouse-Latrec’s partygoers, and in the opulence and energy of Florine Stettheimer’s group scenes. They revel in indulgence, they kiss, dance, smoke, and touch, they’re carefree and fun-loving, and they’re everything I am not while in quarantine.
People say that you’re supposed to spend time with artwork that speaks to you. That sure is a quaint notion, but most galleries close before the work day is over and museums get pricey. For this reason, much of the artwork that has spoken to me is located in the various watering holes I lurk in throughout New York City.
Good god, I miss bars so much. There is so much despair, grief, and anxiety in the world, and it’s just cruel that we can’t all commiserate with a cigarette and a stiff one on some back patio together. I don’t miss bars for the alcohol, I have that here in my apartment (and how). But what I do miss is that specific New York flavor and spirit in certain corners, and the feeling of camaraderie with my fellow New Yorkers. I also miss the art that hides inside of them.
So behold, for your nostalgia’s pleasure and mine, six of my favorite art-filled bars in the city of New York. This is by no means a cohesive list of bars with art in them, but I tried to encapsulate the ones who approached the art in their space with a curator’s mind, not just a “Oh yeah, we should probably get something on the wall.” Not perfect science, but hey, this is about bar hopping. So loosen up.
Caravaggio (pictured above)
23 E 74th Street, New York, NY 10021
The names this bar can drop are frankly astonishing. Aside from the obvious hat tip to the famous Baroque painter in its name, the bar holds works by Matisse, Ellsworth Kelly, and Frank Stella. As if that wasn't enough, the restaurant’s commissioned mural, by Donald Baechler, of a million different faces looking shocked right at you is really fun. The inclusion of those aforementioned master works actually hinder the space’s warmth a bit; like the vibe is a little too art history-y for me to be able to let my guard down and get my drink on. But you know, it does rule to come here and have a glass of wine below a Matisse cut out.
41 E 7th St, New York, NY 10003
Of the bars on this list, Burp Castle is probably the one on this list where I’ve actually spent the most time drinking. Famed for its bartenders that are experts in both beer (they call themselves Brewist Monks, m’lady) and how to kindly tell people to shut the fuck up, you can, generally speaking, find me here sipping a witbier and enjoying the peace provided by my fedora-clad friends. In the quiet, the bar’s mural, depicting such loud subject matter as monks getting drunk and fighting at sea, gets to take center stage. Perhaps this is how art openings should go for optimal viewing experience: seated, artisan beer in hand, and completely silent. Take notes from the Brewist Monks, Larry G.
60 E 54th St, New York, NY 10022
Edward Sorel, known for illustrating probably a zillion New Yorker covers, executed the murals in both Monkey Bar and Waverly Inn. Each of the murals are unique to their respective neighborhoods: Monkey Bar is just south of Central Park to the East side, and Waverly Inn is in the village. So, it’s kind of fun to compare the two. While the chapter of New York life that this mural captures pales in comparison to the vitality and coolness of the West Village, Monkey Bar feels a little more refined, a little more antique. Up here, it’s all old school magazine publishers, jazz composers, and Broadway playwrights, which is romantic in that Old New York way. Plus, Alfred Woolcott as the moon is absolutely adorable. I much prefer the murals in Monkey Bar-proper, where the restaurant gets its name. The monkeys are just good fun. One’s wearing a tux! Another’s balancing a champagne flute on his toes! They embody a contagious joie-de-vivre. It also kind of reminds me of the cover art for Black Eyed Peas’ album “Monkey Business.” Not really sure if that’s a plus or minus.
35 E 76th St, New York, NY 10021
Of all the bars on the list, Bemelman’s is the one best known for its murals, with good reason. Though the bar is flanked by some grand Rudolf Stingel renditions of Ludwig Bemelmans illustrations, I was delighted to find the interior of the bar much more understated than I predicted. The writer and illustrator is best known for the Madeline series, and stepping into the bar here at The Carlyle hotel you find the twelve little girls in two straight lines, and step into their universe (plus booze). Presumably set in a Parisian park, rabbits in blazers smoke cigars, a doorman gets tangled up in a flock of poodles, and kangaroos sit down for tea in a garden. It’s all the whimsy and glitz that I associated with Paris as a child while reading the Madeline books.
Even though the mural is definitely Paris, it certainly shares a spirit with the Central Park milieu, which is just a few blocks over. I sat down at the bar and had a gin & tonic (they have a full page in their menu dedicated to just those!). The more I looked at the mural, the more I thought about how jealous my child self was of Madeline in Paris and Eloise in New York, growing up in such glamorous parts of the world. Especially Eloise. That bitch got everything.
112 Avenue A, New York, NY 10009
Niagara, a veritable college dive, is certainly the dark horse on this list, which is why I love it. The Yoshitomo Nara drawings here are absolute bliss, and are so perfectly placed in a bar that has no real historic value in the city, but is nonetheless flocked by its inhabitants. Nara was not commissioned to draw these pieces, no, instead he illicitly freehanded them one night in 2010 as a patron of the bar, and today, they stand framed in the Alphabet City stronghold.
I love the mental image of a hungover Nara waking up bleary and hungover one morning, then realizing, “Oh fuck, did I draw on the walls last night?” Today, Nara is one of the top-paid living artists, so I’m accustomed to seeing his work in auction houses and white cubes, though his impish characters feel so much more at home in a bar where I once brought a Tinder date back in college. Legend has it that on the night Nara drew them back in 2010, he was arrested for drawing graffiti on the subway, and was bailed out of jail just in time for his show at Marianne Boesky. The halcyon days of East Village nightlife might be behind us, but Nara’s puckish punk rockers maintain a glimmer of it. I’ll cheers to that.
16 Bank Street, New York, New York 10014
The Sorel mural here takes the cake for me. Having a drink next to the fireplace in there embodies all the romantic loneliness of drinking alone in New York, and you get to do it among some of the city’s most famed barflies. The best part about this mural, is that the faces in it don’t really mingle with each other, unlike in Monkey Bar uptown. Here, Allen Ginsburg, Fran Leibowitz, and Andy Warhol are all having their singular experience of New York: Fran puffs on a cigarette, Andy morosely pushes a grocery cart filled with Brillo Pads, and Allen cranes his neck into a notebook while hidden behind a tree. It doesn’t present these figures as being part of some great clique together. Instead, among all the glamour, they opt to be by themselves.
This bar was cozy on a cold day the last time I visited (alone!). While I sat there, I was delighted that no one bothered me. I love going to bars alone. I’ve gotten so good at it that I don’t even need my phone or a book anymore to play with in my hands. I much prefer the austere companionship of those unfriendly faces from New York. While looking out at the real actual faces of the other people drinking here, either alone or with someone, I felt them all start to combine with the faces on the wall. Photos aren’t allowed of the mural, which also makes me feel more kinship with it—like me, it didn’t come here to be marveled at. The mural and the faces in it are here to take inventory of downtown’s detritus, undisturbed. We were all alone, together, as the saying goes. I know where I’ll go first the minute businesses re-open.