“Play me a song, Mr. Piano Man,” Billy Joel croons in his aptly named hit, “Piano Man.”
Piano bars in New York run the gamut from all out performances to quiet crooners sitting in the corner, but perhaps theater historian John Kenrick said it best when he described the piano bar as a hybrid creature: “part performance space, part living room, part cruise-a-thon, and part saloon.”
However, that’s not to say that all places with a piano can classify as a piano bar. In a New York Times piece from 2010, Frank Bruni makes the distinction that there’s a large difference between piano bars, and bars that happen to have a piano – mainly that in order to be considered a piano bar, “the music and maybe the chance to sing it are more crucial to the establishment’s identity than anything the bartender concocts.”
We’d tend to agree with Bruni on this front, though it must be said that music comes more easily with a few martinis or whiskeys on the rocks under your belt.
Below, we dive in to the 10 best piano bars in the city, from institutions like Don’t Tell Mama to fancy affairs like Bemelmans Bar in the Carlyle Hotel.
Brandy's Piano Bar
Fortunately for its boisterous patrons, Brandy's Piano Bar on the Upper East Side stays open late. Hidden away on an unsuspecting street, this popular piano bar is one part sing-along, two parts lounge, and all around a great time. Upon arrival, expect to get pulled in by the staff to participate in a tune or 5, as Brandy's is definitely not a spectator sport. Be aware that unlike others on this list, Brandy's inflicts a two-drink minimum, per person per set, so be prepared to open a tab if you plan on staying. Happy hour starts at 4PM, though music won't get going until 9:30. (212-744-4949)
Open 365 days a year until 4AM, The Duplex is not your grandmother's piano bar. Instead, colorful characters from New York and beyond show up for the opportunity to get in front of the crowd for a performance. Drag queens mix-and-mingle with straight guys and gays alike, livening up the atmosphere and adding an extra dash of playfulness to the vibe. Unlike other places on this list, The Duplex supports a come-as-you-are, open door policy, so you won't have to worry about sporting your Sunday best to get inside. Once there, try your fingers on the keys or grab hold of the mic – it's about to be a wild ride. (212-255-5438)
Named after a famous author of children's literature, this piano bar in the Carlyle Hotel offers a luxurious reprieve on the Upper East Side. The spot bills itself as a piece of "Old New York," but the author's murals from stories like the classic, Madeline, balance out the dark, heavy wood and atmosphere. Piano jazz is played here nightly from 5:30PM, and patrons include everyone from mature neighbors to politicians and movie stars. Art lovers will also appreciate that the large-scale murals in the hotel bar are the only surviving Bemelmans' work that's still open to the public. Indeed, this place ranks among the city's classic piano bar joints where you can enjoy a good drink, terrific company, and great music in relative peace. (212-744-1600)
Waldorf Cocktail Terrace
While the hotel gets most of the fame, we think the art deco setting of the Waldorf-Astoria Cocktail Terrace deserves a bit of love, too. Overlooking the lobby of the historic hotel, the glamorous terrace features velvet chairs for lounging, and a fully stocked bar that caters to the elite. On Fridays and Saturdays, pianists sit down to the entertain patrons on Cole Porter's very own grand piano, "High Society," a gift to the hotel from the legendary musician in 1939. Built by Steinway & Sons in Astoria, Queens, the piano is hand-carved with double Empire-style legs. If you're really feeling the pull of history, order up the Cole-tini, the bar's signature nod to Mr. Porter. (212-355-3000, 212-872-1275)
Don't Tell Mama
Don't Tell Mama takes the cake for a no-holds-barred piano bar experience that can only be described as eclectic. Featuring segmented live jazz, sing-along and cabaret rooms, comedy groups, musicals, and a variety of other acts take the stage to show off their pipes and cajole the crowd into participating. If you're looking for smooth jazz and a quiet evening, keep looking. Here, bartenders and servers aren't afraid to bust out in song, and many have worked on the stages of Broadway and Off-Broadway. Along with musicality, Don't Tell Mama rocks with laughter and conversation from a mix of patrons who would not normally be seen hanging out together. (212-757-0788)
Due to its proximity and some of its clientele, Marie's Crisis in the West Village is often billed as a gay piano bar, but this intimate dive welcomes those of all orientations, genders and ages. The piano takes center stage at Marie's and unless you arrive early, chances are its standing room only. No matter. You'll be on your feet as soon as the music starts anyway, singing at the top of your lungs with a room full of strangers. For this reason, it's fun to go with friends, but acceptable to show up solo and make comrades with this non-judgmental crowd once you arrive. (212-243-9323)
Blue-tin ceilings and red velvet walls mingle with twinkling chandeliers at Chez Josephine, a piano bar and restaurant in Hell's Kitchen. Named in honor of Josephine Baker, a Parisian stage and film star, undercover agent in WWII and Civil Rights activist, this French bistro opened in 1986, and has been wowing adventurers who step off of 42nd Street ever since. Live piano entertainment takes place nightly, in addition to Sunday brunch. Patrons say they feel like they've been taken back in time to Paris in the 1930s, or as Chez Josephine prefers to calls it – "le Jazz Hot with soul." (2125941925)
The Astor Room
"The only thing better than brunch is Jazz Brunch," reads The Astor Room website. We'd have to agree, though we're quick to point out that piano cocktail music is on the menu every Wednesday - Sunday during dinner. Located in Queens, The Astor Room at Kaufman Astoria Studios bills itself as food meets music meets bar, and is helmed by Chef Nathanial Felder, the former chef at Catch and Lavo in Manhattan. Impressive architectural details like the marble staircase and painted terracotta tiles are all original from the 1920s, and provide the perfect backdrop for a glamorous and romantic evening out in Astoria. (718-255-1947)
On first glance, Little Branch doesn't look like a piano bar. In fact, it doesn't look like much at all. This teeny, narrow space lives behind a discreet door in the Village – often the only clue that you've found the right place are the people queuing up outside. Upon further inspection, however, you'll begin to notice the nuances: a well-worn piano stands guard in the corner and the social decencies of the past are stringently enforced: no nonsense or talking loudly permitted. If you're permitted entry, you'll likely find a jazz trio manning the corner, and a smattering of suspender-wearing bartenders pouring up old classics. (212-929-4360)
Manhattan Inn's name is deceiving, as you'll have to trek to Brooklyn to visit this tried-and-true favorite. Located on Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint, the back dining room holds a white baby grand piano, where pianists sit to play during dinner every evening, plus for weekend brunch. Performers here run the gamut of talent and genre, though many have worked with established stars from Ryan Adams to the Brazilian Girls. If you're more interested in singing along than behaving at your table, check the Inn's schedule – on certain nights of the week the Inn hosts piano karaoke where you can "impress your friends with your sweet vocal skills," according to their website. (718-383-0885)
About Andrea Duchon
Andrea Wien was bitten by the travel bug from an early age, and has lived in New York, Seattle, Cleveland and Sydney, Australia since 2007.
When she's not traveling or planning a trip, you'll likely find her eating tacos while throwing darts and watching the Cleveland Browns.
Read more about Andrea Duchon here.
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