Last fall, the Rum House at the Edison Hotel closed its doors, causing nostalgic types to bemoan the loss of yet another New York institution. At the beginning of this year, the dim-lit piano bar just off Times Square reopened without too much more than a hard scrubbing, some stylish new fixtures and a cocktail list that errs on the safe side of "craft."
The team behind Ward III in Tribeca is the force behind the revamp. Unlike other overhauls that have transformed old into flashy, wildly exclusive versions of their former selves, Rum House 2.0 still looks and feels like the original—minus the clunky kitsch and 37 years of grime. Michael Neff, Kenneth McCoy and Abdul Tabini did not go too "Jurassic Park" with this dinosaur. Sure, they may have scared off (and pissed off) a couple longtime patrons, but a good number of regulars still show, ambivalent to the new breed of ambitious cocktailian in their midst.
Digs: As we've learned from "Hoarders" and so many home makeover reality shows, it's amazing what a thorough cleaning can do. Who would have guessed that the grimy old bar could be polished to reveal a gleaming copper countertop? Or that the aging light fixtures could be scrubbed of years of cigarette smoke residue and actually look stylish? The piano is still there—and continues to be used for nightly performances—as is one of the large wagon-wheel chandeliers overhead. So, what's new at the Rum House, then? Pearly white tiled floors, handsome metalwork wall accents and sleek red leather banquettes.
Crowd: In its former incarnation, the Rum House played host to Broadway regulars, nearby office workers and gawking tourists. And each of these is still represented, with a few extra cocktail enthusiasts thrown into the mix. On a recent night, a couple of young suits sat down with their Amstel Lights, oblivious to the booze aficionado avidly perusing the drinks list next to them; while a group of theatergoers bellied up to the bar to discuss the finer plot points of "The Book of Mormon" playing nearby. A white-haired couple with all the trappings of Midwesterners poked their heads in, but thought better of it, heading to the lights of Times Square like moths.
Staff: Reflecting the classy-yet-casual atmosphere of the place, the bar staff wears crisp black chef jackets paired with jeans and sneakers. And, in the spirit of truly old-school drinking establishments, the barkeep looks to be nearing—if not, gasp, over—40! It's a relief that the Ward III team didn't enlist a league of mustachioed hipsters and waifish beauties to man the bar and wait on tables. In fact, hardcore cocktail geeks might even raise an eyebrow at the bartender's eschewing of the jigger to free pour out measures like it's the '90s. And said bartender might proceed to raise an eyebrow right back.
Drinks: The beauty of a hotel bar is that you can drink whatever you like, however you like. A glass of white wine, a bottle of beer, a shot of bourbon...no one is judging you. But if you're among those familiar with the bespoke cocktails of Ward III (and have come specifically to sample their midtown kin), then you might be disappointed. It's not that the drinks at Rum House aren't fine specimens, deftly executed. Quite the opposite. It's just that they're rather straightforward compared to the fanciful, even kooky, creations found in Tribeca. An Old Fashioned is made with white rum and gently muddled orange and cherry. A Diego Rivera, dry and bitter, has tequila, Meletti amaro, Bonal Gentiane, citrus and egg whites. The Barrymore, named for the theater visible across the street, is single-malt scotch, Ramazzotti (amaro) and Yellow Chartreuse: smoky and aromatic, as the bar itself once was.
Music: Staying true to the original, the Rum House still has live piano performances by such artists as cabaret vets Ickies & Zubritsky and glam-rock crooner Corn Mo. When the piano's lid is closed, tunes waft in through the speakers and might include anything from old jazz standards to the catchy pop songs of today, depending on the whims and music collection of whoever happens to be behind the bar on a given night.
Bottom line: It's always sad to see a famed New York establishment close. But, in rare instances, such places can be rescued and revived without losing their souls. Exercising restraint and good taste, the Ward III team has transformed a faded relic into true classic. The new (and, let's face it, improved) Rum House feels like it was there all along, hiding under the old one, waiting patiently to be rediscovered and restored to its former glory. This charming little piano bar feels familiar enough not to alienate old friends, and spiffy enough to catch the eye of new ones.
228 W. 47th St. Between Seventh and Eighth Aves.
Photo by Sam Horine