"The rooms and stables spacious were and wide, And well we there were eased, and of the best." —Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales
You probably remember the part of high school English class where you slogged through Chaucer's medieval epic about the Wife of Bath, the Pardoner, and all their pals. What you might not remember is that the framework that holds their tales together is an ode to the hotel bar: the venue that brought a group of strangers to revel together and tell stories after a long day's travels. For centuries, the roadside inn was a weary traveler's one-stop-shop for everything he or she needed after hours of bouncing in carriages or on horseback over rough terrain—and usually, that first need was for a stiff drink. These inns were in the business of providing welcome; "well eased" was the five-star Yelp review of its day.
Though drinkers these days have a lot more options, hotel bars remain the quintessential port in a storm: reliable, comfortable places to take shelter from everyday life. The tired, the weary, the huddled masses—those are a hotel bar's prime audience. During the NYC blackout of 2003, it was the bar at the Waldorf-Astoria that let me and hundreds of other panicked folks sit in a cool dark room, out of the August sun, and try to figure out how to get home. I'd left my nearby Midtown office building and heading there almost on autopilot, thinking I might get a room and wait it out. No such luck, but hotel staff passed out handheld fans as the last degrees of air conditioning trickled away, and we spent the cash in our pockets on sweating, ice-filled gin and tonics.
"I love that hotel bars are comfortably outdated."
I love that hotel bars are comfortably outdated. They're not hiding the faux-Tiffany lampshades of the '80s or the faded gilt edge of what was glamorous in the '30s, and the hearts of these places, regardless of when they were built, beat with the same age-old welcome.
In hotel bars, cocktail trends are moot and bartenders never judge. Your luggage may not have caught up with you yet, but you can stop in in your rumpled clothes for whatever you crave—a secret, comforting Cosmo or a classic gin martini. The hotel bar will serve you either—plus a Bay Breeze for your aunt—without blinking.
For some, the hotel bar represents the chance to partake of the splendor of historic institutions like Paris's George V without splurging for a room. My hotel bar tourism is more specific: the winking thrill of sitting at a round table with friends in the Algonquin's lobby bar; making a cocktail lover's pilgrimage to have a Dukes martini in the eponymous hotel bar where it was born.
But that's a secondary appeal. The San Antonio Riverwalk Marriott may not have the gorgeous murals that Bemelman's does, but when I was alone in the city on business, I found ease in the bar with a group of other travelers. We kept in touch, and when I found myself in their town months later, we reconnected—at my hotel's bar, of course.
Especially in a big city, where you spend all day trying hard to ignore the people you're crammed up against on subways and sidewalks, it's rare to feel OK about being curious about the people around you, wondering about their stories and maybe even striking up a conversation. That's just the kind of welcoming spirit hotel bars have been perfecting for centuries, and why—whether you're a weary traveler or just around the corner from home—you'll always find yourself well eased.