The Oscar Wilde Bar

Aesthetic period door plaque. Oscar Wilde Bar, New York City.

There have been Oscar Wilde bars before now: in Berlin, San Diego, Chicago, and, I seem to recall, one previously in New York City. There is a Wilde Café in Minneapolis, and a bar called Oscar Wilde 9 located, both surprisingly and unsurprisingly, at #9 Oscar Wilde St. in Mexico City.

Most of these pretenders, however, merely give a nod to the old boy by borrowing his name. One or two, such as Wilde’s Restaurant in The Lodge at Ashford Castle, in Cong, Ireland, and the Oscar Wilde room at the Café Royal in Piccadilly, London, try a little harder to embody Oscar’s maxim that moderation is a fatal thing, and nothing succeeds like excess.

Raising The Bar

But believe me, none of them, past or present, comes remotely close to the lavishness to be found at the new Oscar Wilde Bar in New York City.

As one artistic passerby was heard to exclaim when poking his head through the door, “Minimalism is dead!” And that was when the place was only half finished during the renovations.

Now that it is finished it was time to attend the press reception.

variations on a theme

Conducting this knowing symphony of ornamentation are Tommy Burke and Frank McCole, maestros of three other restaurants in the city, each with reverberations of Oscar Wilde: Lillie’s, Lille’s Times Square, and the Papillon Bistro.

Each of these restaurants in its own way is ornate and unique. Or, as Gwendolen says about the name Ernest in Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest: each has “a music of its own” which “inspires absolute confidence.” This is perhaps why the owners, stirred by these lyrical overtures have been persuaded into such philharmonic proportions with a homage to the man himself.

There is every reason for the owners to be serious about their Wilde. They know, as documented here, that Wilde visited America for an entire year in 1882, and spent more time in New York than anywhere else.


Drinking in the ambience

Of course the decor has taken all the attention, so I shall not repeat the superlatives. The features are listed here, and to save a thousand words is the reason we paint these pictures.

Instead let us focus on the experience.

The Oscar Wilde Bar is essentially a place for extravagant indulgence in the Oscar Wilde style. Fitting, therefore, that there is an absinthe fountain. [1]

This legal liquor is the latter-day equivalent of Wilde’s decadent poison. Not that I partook of the Green Fairy, myself, oh no. Absinthe, you see, is supposed to possess mysteriously mind-bending properties. As Wilde himself noted, “After the first glass you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally, you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world.”

So fearing for my sanity (and, incidentally, as official advisor to the Beverage Director on all drinks Wildean), I thought I should be more circumspect in my carousing, so I decided to limit my intake to two drinks.

But how to achieve this stricture and still remain eclectically Wildean?

Here’s how: my first drink was the Oscar Wilde Potent Elixir, a house cocktail of cognac, champagne, gin, cassis, lavender, orange zest, and Guinness. This I washed down with my second drink: a bottle of iced Champagne—”a favorite drink of mine” agreed Oscar, under oath no less. And that, as those counting will agree, is only two drinks. It just sounds more.

Draft Pick

As you are probably beginning to realise, the Oscar Wilde Bar is a very easy place in which to imbibe. Why is this I wonder?

Everyone talks about the (eventually) staggering choice of  32 beers and 300 (!) whiskeys; and then there is New York’s longest bar, which yes, is an impressive stretch of fair-trade Vietnamese marble.

But as with all temptations, the devil is in the details.

Anyone who has been to a New York happy hour will know that bar-hogging is both a bane to service and a barrier to getting served.

However, at Oscar Wilde, punctuating the entire length of the bar is a line of revolving one-armed barstools. This idea, I have worked out, simultaneously encourages patrons sitting at the bar to bend an elbow while permitting patrons standing near the bar to insert one. An ingenious fusion of form and function.

Double Vision

Experiencing the Wilde style, however, does not only mean indulgence.

The twin vision of Tommy and Frank is to create space in which to indulge that is both expressive and evocative of Wilde’s actual life and times.

Expressive of Wilde’s times in the sculptured surroundings which immediately have a character destined to encourage familiar meetings and favorite nooks. There are pediments and podiums; statements and stained glass. One can dine behind curtains or sup beneath statues. Even a visit to the bathroom is like a steady-cam tracking shot from a time-travel movie.

And if you’ve ever wondered what air-conditioning ductwork would have looked like had it been around in Victorian times—and, let’s face it, who hasn’t?—this is the place to find out.

And evocative of Wilde’s life in recognizing that, as in any Wilde story, there is a subliminal message.

In this case, the irony of a building once the office of Prohibition Enforcement but now decorated with the Priest’s quarters’ porcelain and tables that once served nuns. Hidden clues abound: of sunflowers and peacock feathers, and quotations etched in stone. There is mahogany from Ireland where Wilde was born; a case clock from London where he lived; and a fireplace from France where he died. And the discrete placement of 26 antique clocks all set to ten minutes to two, to mark the time of his demise.

As you can see, this bar is no frivolous idea, and, of course, you must go.

Go, not just for the owners’ twin vision, nor even for your own double vision. Go for Oscar’s sake. To keep alive his legacy of decadent self expression. You’ll find the whole place is an instant classic, like an old friend you’ve been visiting for years.

Of course, you haven’t. Not yet.

The genuine French fireplace surround, c. 1840s.

See also:

The Pictures of Dorian Gray (East Village bar)


[1] An absinthe fountain does not dispense absinthe: it is used to drip iced water into a glass of absinthe, a process necessary to release fragrances and flavors latent in the essential oils.

Published by

John Cooper

John Cooper is a researcher, author, blogger and documentary historian. As a long-standing member of the Oscar Wilde Society in London, a founding member of the Oscar Wilde Society of America, and a former manager of the Victorian Society In America, he has spent 30 years in the study of Oscar Wilde, having lectured on Wilde, and contributing to TV, film, and academic journals including The Wildean and Oscholars. Online he is the designer, author and editor of this noncommercial archive Oscar Wilde in America, blogger, and moderator of the Oscar Wilde Internet discussion groups at Yahoo and Google. For the last 14 years he has specialized in new and unique research into Oscar Wilde in New York, where he conducts guided walking tours based on the visits of Oscar Wilde. In 2012 John rediscovered Oscar Wilde's essay The Philosophy Of Dress that forms the centerpiece to his recent book Oscar Wilde On Dress (2013).

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