Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Hotel Delmano: The art of keeping a not-so-secret secret

I was gearing up to make my rounds of different lounges when I saw the blog buzz building around Hotel Delmano. After reading reports of people being turned away and phone numbers being taken down for a wait list, I decided I needed to bump up the Brooklyn joint on the list of bars to visit before it got too difficult to set foot in the place.

"I hope people in Williamsburg don't like to get their drink on at 7 pm on a Tuesday night," I thought to myself as I stepped off the L train at Bedford Ave.

I made a beeline for 82 Berry St. right after work but was relieved to find that I managed to find the place in a relative state of calm. I noticed several people passing by the place try to peer curiously into the frosted windows, and while I was in there, several curious locals even stepped in to ask about what was going on. In fact, the unassuming "main" storefront of the place, with its locked gate, almost made me think the place was closed at first glance. If you plan to make a visit you're going to want to go around the corner to the "side" entrance. Obviously, when it's busier this would not be an easy mistake to make.

I slowly pushed the door open and it was like I had stepped through a rift in the space time continuum and I found myself in the hotel bar somewhere in early between 1900 and 1950. From the old-school clunky cash registers behind the bar to the worn looking mirrors. I started wondering if there was an ", your one stop shop for all old-looking mirrors" somewhere out there. I was especially digging the iron fridge doors with portholes.

I started out with The Corpse Reviver No. 2 (gin, cointreau, lillet, lemon juice, pastis)

"Why's it a No. 2?" I innocently asked the lone bartender Kevin Denton, who had a passing resemblance to a brunette version of Michael Pitt. I also found out he was the friend former NRNer, now Fodor's editor, Erica Duecy's husband. New York is funny like that.

He smiled broadly and answered, "Because it came after No. 1."

I admit I walked into that one. Kevin did explain that the difference was that No. 1 was a brandy based drink. No. 2 is made with gin.

I asked him how the crowds have been since it seemed so quiet that evening. He said people had picked up on the coverage from blogs and the weekend had been pretty busy with people from "all over" dropping in.

I valiantly attempted to document the place and my drinks in the dim lighting of the place, but I knew it was a lost cause with my dinky digital camera. Nonetheless, I snapped away hoping that maybe there'd be some salvageable shots when I got home.

However, my photo taking efforts did attract the attention of one of the owners of Hotel Delmano, Zeb Stewart, who was taking some pictures of his own with a serious looking digital SLR. At least I think it was digital. Again, it was a little dark.

He explained he'd seen some photos floating around of the new bar that weren't so great so he was trying to get some better images to use for press purposes out there. (Operators, take note. Nothing wrong with being proactive about having photos available.)

It was obvious the look and feel of the place was very important to him. I asked him if everything was functional or just for design. For example, the ladder at the end of the bar and all the bottles on the high shelves.

"Nope, it's entirely functional. That's all of our liquor up there," Zeb said. He designed the place originally and was also hands-on with building it. Another owner, Michael Smart, also helped with the building and finalizing some of the design ideas. Interesting detail to consider how they managed to conjure up the old look and feel of Hotel Delmano: Michael also works with antique restoration, according to Zeb. The third partner in this venture is Alyssa Abeta.

I was curious about the all the attention to detail. In fact, I really liked the iron doors with portholes for the fridge behind the bar.

"It looks practically...steampunk." I said.

Zeb seemed amused with that assessment, but I could tell that's not what he was going for.

I tried one more time, "Also you see a lot of bars trying to emulate a sort of Prohibition style..."

He saw where I was going and headed me off at the pass by explaining the idea was to make the place "a real social club." It wasn't about serving cocktails, but more about serving a setting. That made sense. The attention to detail was meant to play a role as setting up how guests should act or expect to act in the space, so the look of an old social club or bar like one you might find in Havana gives a quiet intimate space.

Zeb said, "To me, the most important thing was that the cocktails were to be really good and that people come and talk."

Hence all the hush-hush on coverage before the place opened. Zeb said there were some small parties, mostly for locals, before the grand opening, but the point was not to have it all out in the open in order to maintain local hangout integrity.

And not to be exclusive. It's not a top-secret bar with an elaborate entrance procedure. It just happens to be a little tucked away is all. There's no door policy -- no dress codes or anything like that -- except that it's strictly first come first. Also, Zeb explained that there's a cap on how many people can be in the place at one time to keep it from getting crazy and compromising a conversation-friendly atmosphere. Those who can't make it in can leave a number where they can be contacted at once the crowd eases up. Zeb said the ideal crowd size for Hotel Delmano was around 75-80 people.

Zeb was trying explain to me how originally he wanted the tiling on the top of the refrigerators behind the bar to go down to the doors instead of the porthole doors that were now in place, when he asked if I'd seen the bathroom.

I noticed the one coming in but he shook his head and said, "No, the one in the back. We did the tiling on the door there. Let me show you."

I dumped my camera and bag on the bar hoping that through some unspoken bartender ESP Kevin would understand that I wanted him to keep an eye on it so I could follow Zeb to go look at the back bathroom. I think it's pretty safe to say I'm rarely excited to look at a bathroom stall door. I oohed and ahhed when I did see it. It was sort of like the entrance to a pressure chamber on an old submarine, but once you opened the tiled door, the inside of the bathroom stall was elegantly done with dark wood paneling that made me think of...what? The portholes in the fridge and the bathroom door, the wood-tiled bathroom...

"OK, this is going to sound really nerdy, but do you know the video game 'Bioshock'?" I asked before I could stop myself. I was letting my geek flag fly. (Explanation: Bioshock is a survival horror, first-person shooter game that received a lot of acclaim for it's well-rendered world, which showcases an alternative history underwater society that has a sort of steampunk meets Art Deco style to it.)

Zeb said he was familiar with it but mentioned that the look he was going there was more old glamor meets Titanic. I had to concede this was a better description.

I confessed, "I have to know, did you get the mirrors this way or did you make them look like this?"

They were all old mirrors, but they definitely had a little help getting into the state they were in.

"We used a secret recipe that I'm afraid I'd have to kill you if I told you," Zeb mysteriously answered, "but I will tell you that we breathed in a lot of toxic fumes to bring this look to you...we risked our health and general well-being"

The current cocktail menu at Hotel Delmano has a total of seven drinks, but like any good bar, you can order something off the list. Kevin said that menu changes would probably come once the initial buzz died down and the place settled into its new digs a bit. He said that the bartenders were definitely eager to show their stuff and there were several projects that each were working on. Kevin hinted that some pet projects in the works from the other bartenders involved ingredients like absinthe and pickled vegetables.

Food is also in the works for the near future. Especially to take more advantage of the wine list already in place.

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