A couple walks into a piano bar… It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, right? Instead, it’s a quintessential evening out in the Big Apple. But rather than the expected smooth jazz ensemble, the solo pianist is playing — surprise! — a moody version of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Something glorious has emerged in the nightlife world: the resurgence of New York City’s piano bar scene, but with a whole new attitude.
As classic cocktails have come back into favor, there may be no better complement to an old-fashioned than the clubby atmosphere of a piano bar, where the pièce de résistance is a shiny black instrument that transforms any room into a celebration. But let’s get this straight: This is not the dueling pianos of your college days, where classic rock ballads were accompanied by shots and bad decisions. Think of this as the more refined older sibling who still likes to party on occasion.
Decades ago, piano bars became an integral part of New York City’s nightclub scene for those seeking something in between a jazz club and a supper club. Marie’s Crisis Cafe, a stalwart in show tunes sing-alongs, dates back to the 1800s. Then there’s Brandy’s, an Uptown darling that’s been around for 35+ years and exudes a more raucous vibe, where a musician will happily bust out Taylor Swift or Cardi B. And we can’t talk piano bars without mentioning Bemelmans Bar, the 1940s-era lounge helmed by tuxedoed, white-gloved servers — truly the gold standard. The main thing that’s changed? An influx of Gen Zers, wide-eyed young things, all dressed up and in search of a good time.
Post-pandemic, the Big Apple has adopted a bring-me-the-good-stuff attitude (caviar! Dom!) with a serious dose of swagger. Enter establishments like the Nines. This celebrity magnet piano lounge is inspired by European lobby bars such as Dukes in London and the Bar Hemingway in Paris. The room is swathed in scarlet velvet with cheetah-print wallpaper and cushy banquettes that serve as the backdrop for monied Millennials sipping gin martinis. Here, guests are encouraged to dress to the nines (naturally), which equates to everything from backless velvet cocktail dresses to white tuxedos paired with high-top sneakers. After all, life is short — wear the good stuff.
But back to that Nirvana tune. That couple was my husband and me, seated at a cozy table at Melody’s Piano Bar. This place is polished, with an opulent atmosphere that shows off with palm-covered Versace wallpaper, checkered black-and-white flooring, art deco fixtures and a working fireplace. It feels splurgy and celebratory as you snack on potato chips topped with caviar and sip a shaken basil collins, all while keeping it cool with melodic alt rock.
Like bell bottoms, grunge and gimlets, most trends eventually return, so it was only a matter of time before piano bars were back in vogue. But perhaps the best throwback we could ask for in today’s day and age is the opportunity to put down our phones, actually tune in and, if we’re so inclined, even participate in the performance (as in, the later the night, the louder the sing-along). Isn’t that what entertainment is all about?