Roofs on Fire: Rooftop Bars Are a Proven Hit

As packed venues at A60Jimmy, and Le Bain have proven, rooftop bars were the year’s top hotel trend, according to a new report released by Jones Lang LaSalle Hotels. It covered a number of aspects of the New York City hotel scene, but the rooftop bar was by far the most dominant new trend. Pioneered by boutique properties but recently embraced by bigger chains, it’s not hard to see why. a good rooftop space can bring in up to $120 per square foot in peak months, translating to profits up to 50%.

There are a few factors that make these bars successful, including a large enough space (the flat, pre-war rooftops of New York buildings are the perfect setting) and a killer view, of which New York City has many. And in a city where other kinds of development and additions are curtailed, it’s a logical way to expand as well as offer something of value to your customers. And the trend is spreading:  “The concept has caught on in other U.S. gateway markets like Miami, Chicago, Washington, DC and Los Angeles, as well as international hubs,” says Amelia Lim, Executive Vice President of Jones Lang LaSalle Hotels. 

Industry Insiders: Robert d’Arcangelo, Managing A60’s A-List

From his perch in the Rooftop Bar high above Kittichai, Robert d’Arcangelo — general manager of the Thom Bar and A60 — calls the shots at 60 Thompson (and sometimes pours them).

What are your favorite places? My favorite restaurant is La Siesta in Sperlonga, in a small beach town at the beginning of the Amalfi Coast in Italy. Not cheap, but the food and style of service is basically perfect. Stresa in Paris is another. In the city, really, there’s a small Argentinian restaurant on the Lower East side called Azul Bistro. The food is always consistent, the service is very casual, but if it’s any type of date or business meeting, I can always count on things going the right way there. If you pay attention to the ceiling, it’s plastered in old Argentinian pin-up centerfolds, but a lot of people don’t notice.

The A60 rooftop is finally open for summer. Yes. The week we decided to open the A60 roof garden, it seemed to rain forever. I’ve had the opportunity to go up there at sunset, and the view of the water towers on the rooftops is still my favorite sight in New York. Miles and miles of water towers. It’s just very much a New York experience that you can see all the way uptown to the Empire State Building. This view with a mojito makes you feel as if you’re on the private terrace of a penthouse.

Isn’t it a private terrace? It is. It’s just for members and people in the hotel. Regardless of when you go up there, you never have to worry about being shoulder-to-shoulder with the teeming masses. I hope that doesn’t change for the future.

The view is really spectacular. I really need to make more of an effort to spend a few more nights of the summer up there. One of the great things is seeing the 4th of July fireworks from the rooftop. Last year I had my mom up there, and she started tearing up and having a New York moment. We employ a lot of kids, college kids who work for us who have moved away from home, and whenever their parents come in, they want to take them to the roof to see their adopted city. It makes the parents feel good about where their kids are. In New York, waiting tables could mean anything. When they come and they see their kids working in a hotel like this one, in this environment, they feel good about the situation.

What’s the Thom Bar famous for? It was one of the first lounge bars in a boutique hotel. That’s where all the cocktails in the building became famous. The DJs we have there work seven nights a week. I’ve always had a strict rule: they could only bring in vinyl, no CDs. That makes a big difference. We’re always able to shift the type of music for the crowd and the vibe in the room. For a period after 9/11 there was no restaurant in the hotel, and Thom Bar became the heart of the hotel. We spent a lot of time perfecting the cocktails. I think the lychee martini is the top seller; although other places have their version, people keep coming back for more. My personal favorite is the strawberry Limoncello, a muddled drink that’s an unusual taste combination.

How was the concept for Kittichai conceived? After 9/11 the restaurant Thom closed, and for a year there was nothing. One of the investors, Robin Lee, had been in Thailand and had heard of Chef Ian who was doing a television show that was seen in 45 countries. Robin went to the Four Seasons to meet him there and after he did a personal tasting for the owners, Kittichai was born in New York. I call him Chef Ian, but his name is really Charlerm Kittichai. Rockwell designed the restaurant; they did an amazing job transforming the space into a memorable experience in Thai food. It was tough to bring the orchids in over the pool. Until Kittichai, a lot of people weren’t familiar with anything but fast Thai food, so Ian put his culinary skills to work in a sophisticated taste test, with more of a western approach. When we opened, we were amazed at how well it was received: for the first two years it was packed every night. People really needed a high-end Thai restaurant, and they keep on coming. After dinner, the procession moves to the sky.

Who do you admire in your industry? Jean-Marc Houmard, for sure. Even though the circles he travels in are high-flying, the humbleness he displays is admirable. The staff in all of his restaurants really love him. Mario Batali is another one. He’s been able to do a lot with the restaurant industry. He’s a customer here, so I’ve had to chance to talk with him. A very humble guy.

Current trend in restaurants that you like? There’s a lot of negative talk about “fusion,” but going to Whole Foods and watching the Food Network lets you know what we can do. Customers are a lot more adventurous than they used to be. They’re well educated, and it really excites chef and staff. The possibilities are endless. Before, French restaurants dominated, and people wanted to stay in the old-fashioned concepts of what restaurants should do and be. Now cuisines available from all over the world. When you travel, sometimes you see Chinese-Italian restaurants, which would have once been scary. Now there’s a fascination.

Trend you despise? A lot of restaurant owners have become businessmen instead of restaurateurs. Maybe this recession will teach some respect in an industry that has brought them so much. There’s a place for that — if you’re going to franchise and go the corporate route, that’s fine. I believe in the old-fashioned dictum that every restaurant has a soul.

Something that no one knows about you? I appreciate meditation. I studied Taoism in Los Angeles. It’s not one particular form, but I start my day meditating for 10 minutes before the chaos begins. Now, when things really get nuts, I go to a Burmese temple in New Jersey.

Any non-industry projects in the works? I have a plot of land in Italy in a small section about half an hour from Sperlonga, Lenola, with about 60 olive trees. It’s a little-by-little project I’m getting together.

What are you doing tonight? After work I’m going swimming, and then I’ll cook for myself — I got into work at 7am this morning, and will be here until closing …

Above Allen, a Down-to-Earth New Lounge

Above Allen, or AA, had its soft opening on Friday — but since it’s a terrace where being outside is most important, don’t expect things to completely pop for a couple of months. The first thing that struck me was the couches with their Stephen Sprouse print. I did a triple-take and caught up to my friend Jim Walrod, the designer, and asked him about them. Med Abrous is putting this insanely downtown chic joint on the map. I know Med from the Mark Ronson days of Life, and after an hour of catching up, I asked him a few questions to clarify what’s going to happen here.

The Thompson LES Hotel looms large over the still-vibrant-in-this-recession Lower East Side with a smart, hip staff and the belief that it will be a part of the neighborhood. Embracing those values instead of being above it all seems to be the right path. There was an old movie called Dead End which starred Sylvia Sydney, Joel McCrea, a young Humphrey Bogart, and the Dead End Kids (Bernard Punsley, one of the Dead End Kids was a great-great uncle of mine). Anyway, in the movie an incredible new ivory tower looms over the Lower East Side, and all the people in the 1937 Depression-era slums look up at the swells partying like its 1924 above them. I asked Med about the similarities — was this going to be a ritzy place in a hood slipping into economic misery? But he seemed dedicated to embracing the LES and its artistic/hipster side, especially by keeping drink and food prices relatively low. Designer Jim Walrod’s use of the Stephen Sprouse fabric in the décor sends that signal. Jim said, “There was nobody more downtown than Stephen,” and we exchanged personal stories of our interactions with him. All agreed that despite his brilliance, Stephen was always accessible — and so they say, will be AA.

Jim, is this fabric really … JW:… Steven Sprouse? Yes, It’s the last fabric that exists.

This really is the original fabric? JW: Yes, they didn’t even have enough of it to finish the seats, so we reduced the amount of furniture.

So instead of just knocking it off and reprinting, this is the original. Many people still don’t know who Sprouse is, but he’s getting a lot of press now. His work is finally being recognized by huge groups of people. So Jim, what’s the design idea here? JW:The building is on the LES, and there’s nobody I can associate more with the LES than Stephen Sprouse. When I was young, Sprouse sort of stood as the icon of this part of town. When I used to go to clubs, him and Terri Toy would be sitting there, and they were almost unapproachable, until you did finally meet them, and they were the nicest people you could imagine.

Terri Toy was a transgendered friend who broke out and did YSL fashion shows before retiring to Iowa as a housewife — a great LES story. JW: Stephen was always one of those people who represented something. When rockers wanted to look like rockers, they went to Stephen. When Axl Rose wanted to look like a rocker, he went to Stephen, and Stephen designed everything for him. He was also the curator of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. So when I decided to do this room, Stephen Sprouse was very much a part of it.

So it’s not the ghost of Stephen Sprouse, it is the inspiration of his life that is teaching us how we can be. The fact that there’s a commitment to this excellence, to bring this LES icon into this new kind of environment is very important I think. JW: Absolutely, I think what we’re really trying to do here is to keep in line with the Thompson brand, which is a luxury boutique hotel brand, but not take away from the LES and what it is. Marrying the two in such a way that we still have an authentic LES vibe, while maintaining the kind of expectations of great service that the Thompson been known for.

What’s the name of this place? Med Abrous: It’s called Above Allen. So it’s AA, which is a funny name for a bar.

The views are incredible, I see the Empire State Building, the Chrysler building, and downtown, and the LES stretching before us. MA: Yeah, we’re actually hanging off the seventh floor of the building over Allen Street, and the reason for naming it Above Allen is to be consistent. We’re branding these terraces or bars as above whatever hotel they’re in. A60 is the bar on top of 60 Thompson, and the bar that I’m involved with in the Thompson Beverley Hills has an amazing roof deck called ABH, which means Above Beverly Hills. So it’s trying to incorporate this brand in different properties around the US. One of the things I think the Thompson does well is that each hotel they build is really reflective of the neighborhood. There’s always the consistency of luxury and service, but they really go out of their way to try and make it part of the neighborhood and really create something unique.

When are you opening? MA: In early March. There have been previews, like a little something for New Years’ Eve, but our strategy is not just to do a big grand opening and burn too brightly too quickly.

Well, this is a terrace, and opening a terrace is the winter is kind of strange isn’t it? MA: It is strange … there could definitely be better times to do it, but what we’re trying to do is see how the room moves, make sure the staff is well-trained and that we’re providing great service.

Some people believe that this is a recession-proof neighborhood because these kids have a way of making money — they’re young, they’re hustlers. Do you think you can you make money here? MA: I absolutely think so. What’s great about this neighborhood is that people who come down here and open something are really looking to run a marathon. They’re not looking to be the hottest club on the planet for three months then die out and struggle to keep business alive. I think people come in here with a longsighted vision, and we’re very much of that same thought. I think we’re going to have a very long life and really become a destination place so you always know that you can come to Above Allen and there will always be good people, a great setting and good design. Our goal is to meld all of those things, including great music and great vibe into a harmonious experience always.

What are your price points? MA: Our prices are actually really competitive for the neighborhood. They’re not extravagant at all, although hotels generally are more expensive than other bars. It’s about $11 for a drink, and specialty cocktails are $14, whereas more places it would be $16 or $18.

Is that because of the neighborhood, or is it the neighborhood meeting the recession? MA: I think it’s both. We don’t want to alienate ourselves from people in the neighborhood. It’s an extremely artistic, driven community, and people don’t want to just spend $15 on a drink or $10 on a beer. It’s not that crowd — we’re not trying to bring Cipriani’s to the LES.

What kind of music are you going to play? JW: We’re going to have really eclectic music. It’s not a dance club, so in choosing my DJs, I’m much more interested in track selection rather than turntablist ability. We’re not going to have A-Trak or a real turntablist cutting up. We’re in the process of programming different nights, but anywhere from soul to a lot of rock ‘n’ roll, to indie rock, since we’re on the LES.

When can my readers come here to imbibe? MA: We’re going to start off opening about three nights a week, Thursday through Saturday, just to get to operations down smoothly. It’s going to be very friends and family in the beginning. With all our Above properties, we do special membership cards. They don’t cost anything, there’s no membership fee, but if you’re special enough, you’ll receive one in the mail so you can just go right up into the elevator and you’re not dealing with a myriad of door people or security, and that’s kind of the vibe here. But we want it to be a really cool group of people — everyone who’s bringing something to the table vs. just large bank accounts — so we’re also not really planning on doing lots of bottle service up here. We just want to have really great crowds.

What’s the door policy? MA: Well, there will be a doorperson at the bottom of the elevator, and they’ll be keying people up. We’re talking about having a dedicated elevator, but since this is a brand new construction our elevators work damn well. I’m really excited about this property … I think it comes at a difficult time, but we’re all excited about this particular bar, and I think we will have a great time. We have a lot of the right pieces in place.

You’re in a hotel, so is there an amount of money that the hotel requires you to generate? Is there less pressure than a normal bar wouldn’t have to deal with to generate revenue, as the bar also services the hotel guests — do you have a certain rent to cover each month? MA: In operating any venue in a hotel, there are lots of advantages especially that in a hotel most of the revenue is generated by rooms. So, yes, there is a dedicated amount going to rent, but the pressures of being overly profitable are not the same.

Are you serving food here? MA: Yes, we’re going to have a menu with small plates from Shang until 2 a.m. through April. That’s another thing — we’re more interested in the crowd that goes out between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. We don’t want to be a place where people get here at 2 and become that late-night place.

But a place will evolve it’s own identity. If at 2 a.m. you’re packed with a good crowd, you’re not closing the door. MA: Exactly, but really what we’re aiming towards is to have an earlier place where people can come and have cocktails and maybe start their night if they’re going to have a late one — or, just be a destination, like, hey you know what? I’ve got to work tomorrow. I’m going to be done by one or two.