Whenever I spend more than a few days in a foreign city there comes a point where I start longing for a hiatus in a hotel bar. Not just any kind—what I’ll be looking for is an old-fashioned hotel bar with Chesterfield furniture, a long list of rums, a hushed atmosphere and, preferably, a fireplace. I’m not sure why I love these bars; I guess that I, like many other young, aspiring foreign correspondents, tend to romanticize the grand old hotels described by Greene and Hemingway, ignoring that we are decades late to the party. Such bars used to be common, but as old hotels are being refurbished to attract younger crowds, their dusty bars are often converted into clubby cocktail lounges.
It’s a little ironic, then, that the bar that comes closest to my ideal is situated in my former hometown, Copenhagen. When I visit my native land I’m usually too busy catching up with friends and family to spend a lonesome afternoon in a hotel bar; the Danes have a strong tradition of socializing at home. Perhaps it’s because the prices in Copenhagen are prohibitively high, or perhaps it’s because their homes often do look like something from an interior magazine about Scandinavian minimalism and they like spending time in them.
I stopped by The Library Bar in the Plaza Hotel on an afternoon just after Christmas. It looks like the opposite of the minimalist magazines; dark, dusty, and full of wood and leather. About half the tables were occupied. People were sitting on the worn leather couches lining the walls, their cocktails standing on the small tables in front of them. They were looking at the empty tables in the middle of the bar, the grand piano at the entrance and the giant decorated Christmas tree hanging upside down from the glass dome crowning the ceiling. One couple was ignoring the Christmas tree and looking only at one another.
The bar is situated in a cube-like room with wooden walls in the middle of the hotel. There are no windows letting in natural light or betraying the location of the bar; it’s a few steps from the city’s historic Central Station and the world’s second-oldest amusement park. The walls of the bar are clad in shelves full of leather-bound books and antique paintings. In a corner of the room stands an old globe, waiting for someone to spin it.
I took my time deciding between the classic cocktails. The drink list is as conservative as the look of the bar. The menu consists of 10 different versions of gin and tonics, 11 champagne cocktails, 16 single malts, and 17 champagnes served by glass or bottle. “When we opened in the 1970s, most patrons preferred to drink champagne, whiskey or brandy,” the bartender, who probably hadn’t been born yet in the 1970s, explained.
As he served me a glass of champagne he looked, frowning, at a kid playing the piano, making himself heard above the music (“Exile on Main Street” by The Rolling Stones). The parents were looking into their smartphones. “On weekdays, most of our guests are also guests at the hotel, on weekends mostly locals come here. It’s quite a different atmosphere,” he said, before hurrying back to the bar where a few people were waiting to place their orders. He is British, like many other bartenders in Copenhagen. Perhaps it’s because two of the frontrunners on the Copenhagen cocktail scene, Ruby and 1105, are British and have brought other Brits over here. Perhaps the Brits are just better bartenders.
My friend Ida appeared at the entrance, accompanied by the hotel’s bellboy. ”Sorry I’m late, I couldn’t find the bar. In fact, I didn’t even know it existed,” she said. She sat down and looked around, then ordered a cup of coffee. “It’s so old-fashioned,” she said. ”Exactly,” I replied. We toasted, then looked a little longer at the Christmas tree.