New “Speakeasy” Under Chelsea Hotel Ignores History

New York Press
October 13, 2010

WALKING PAST ITS neon-lit red brick facade at night, you can’t help but recall reading about the scenes that unfolded inside.
Perhaps an image circa 1953 springs to mind—a bloated Dylan Thomas raging vainly against a fatal pneumonia by soaking himself with morphine and scotch; or an electric-era Bob Dylan staying “up for days” writing the songs that would make Blonde on Blonde after taking what he enigmatically calls “the cure;” or a Tuinal-zonked Sid Vicious in 1979, pounding on the doors of the crowd Burroughs called “the junkies of the Chelsea Hotel.” When it stood as a fortress of America’s artistic demimonde for over three decades, such Dionysian iconography was mass-produced inside the walls of the Chelsea Hotel.

So when the new owners of a redesigned nightspot located in the hotel’s basement (which officially replaced the defunct Star Lounge and is called the Chelsea Room) decided on which of the hotel’s postwar hipster scenes to tap into to inspire revelers, they chose to ignore all of them. “It’s supposed to feel [like] you’re back in the early 1900s,” General Manager Marcus Bifaro told the Wall Street Journal; a puzzling choice considering the hotel as such didn’t even serve its first guest until 1905. A properly starched husband and wife out of an Edith Wharton novel is probably not even Bifaro’s (who comes by way of Montauk’s Surf Lounge) shorthand for wild abandon. He may have meant the 1920s. The sunken blacked-out basement entranceway has that vague speakeasy-vibe New Yorkers have grown to know so well.

As early in its lifespan as 11 p.m. on a recent Saturday night, however, there was nothing remotely secretive about the space. About 40 people, the vast majority twenty-something girls in similarly cut, light-colored cocktail dresses, were lined up in front the velvet rope at the top of the stairwell. The new owners have made a big deal about not charging $20 for a Grey Goose, but drink prices seem standard; and the much-publicized rooms were crowded and dark. Ask enough partiers questions about the hotel and you realize most of them don’t even know they’re standing underneath one. Sitting behind the ancient check-in desk, the hotel’s night manager seemed the only one with a clue of how the operation works. “Yeah, there’s a bar in the basement. And it’s open,” he says, slightly annoyed. “But it doesn’t have anything to do with us.”