“Dead chameleon, aggressively creepy.” That was the Village Voice headline that inspired the pop artist Kiki Kogelnik to create the skeletal chameleon motif that adorns the facade of Temple Bar, on New York’s Lafayette Street. Unlike their source material — the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould’s Illuminations: A Bestiary; that headline was for a review of the book — Kogelnik’s chameleons are gently mysterious. As the bar’s only signage, they function like the insignia of a secret society. Most chameleons blend in with their environment, making them an apt stand-in for a nightcrawler, or even a bar itself, whose atmosphere shifts with the crowd. But Kogelnik’s bone-white silhouettes appear in stark contrast to the dark green wall, piquing the curiosity of passersby (who then probably forget to investigate).
Along with the NoHo Star, its sister space next door, Temple Bar closed December 31st, 2017, a year after their original owner George Schwarz passed away and 28 years after it first opened as one of the first cocktail bars with the “downtown Bemelmans” vibe that’s still popular today. It played host to a cross-section of New York — downtown scenesters, art world figures, older patrons who wanted a bar quiet enough to talk — and attracted a devoted following for its martinis in oversized glasses. On Thursday, October 14th, the bar will reopen under partners Maneesh Goyal, David Rabin, Michael McIlroy, and Sam Ross. Goyal and Rabin opened the elevated Indian restaurant SONA earlier this year, and came across the opportunity to revive Temple Bar in 2018 while looking for a space for SONA. The Temple Bar project was too good to pass up.
“This is the bar that started it all for a lot of people in New York,” nightlife veteran Rabin said, “It was their first experience with a grown-up, cool, sexy cocktail bar.” Today, Attaboy’s McIlroy and Ross will run the cocktail program. Though the menu is still a work in progress, the team assures that its enormous martinis and gratis popcorn will return, along with “classic cocktails, champagne cocktails and caviar service.”
On a recent Friday, I visited the partners at the space, which, with its emerald drapes, compact armchairs, and mahogany tables, evokes a Deco-inflected smoking lounge, or the inner sanctum of a clubhouse. Goyal and Rabin stress that they’re thinking about it as “a rebirth, as opposed to a new opening.” The original chairs have been reupholstered, the carpeting and floor have both been replaced, and the original tables have been inlaid with fresh leather. “The fireplace was always there; we’re going to fill it with candles,” Goyal said. There’s even a pay phone.
“I’ve been in front of a lot of community boards,” Rabin said, and rarely do a building’s residents endorse a bar opening. In this case, the vote was unanimous. “They all wanted it to be restored. They all loved it, they all miss it.”
In the corner of the back room hangs the disco ball (disco sconce?) from Andy Warhol’s studio, a gift from the interior designer Bill Sofield. “Our designer Melissa Bowers worked for Bill for ten years, and Bill was a big patron of Temple Bar,” Rabin said. “He was so excited to hear we were doing this.”
Both Goyal and Rabin have fond memories of the original bar. They remember it as a go-to date spot and a secret weapon for closing business deals. “I ran a marketing firm on the corner of Broadway and Houston,” Goyal explained. “I would bring these fun clients of mine to Temple Bar and immediately they would be like putty,” because showing out-of-towners the dimly-lit martini den was like “giving them a key to New York.”
Even for locals, the space radiated the mythology of an era just out of reach. “When I would take people to Temple Bar, I’d be like, ‘let’s go here and I’ll show you what New York is supposed to feel like,’” Rabin said.
Jessica Morgan, Director of the Dia Art Foundation, frequented the bar in the ‘90s, when she was a twenty-something Gagosian employee. “It was the most glamorous place I could imagine in New York, having come from London,” she said. “It embodied what I imagined New York to be like, historically and contemporaneously. I didn’t go there that often because I had no money in those days, so buying a martini was the most extravagant evening out.” The bar played host to “a very particular scene” of patrons who “all looked like special people” to Morgan back then, who said she would “sit alongside them and pretend to be part of it. Maybe we all felt like that.”
George Schwarz, the bar’s original owner, was born in Frankfurt, Germany in 1931. During World War II, his family fled Germany and lived in France and Switzerland. He immigrated to the United States alone as a teenager to attend high school, and per an obituary by Carolyn Benveniste, “worked as a waiter at a resort in upstate New York, and during the year, worked as a short-order cook at the counter at Woolworth’s.” He attended City College of New York and Tufts Medical School before becoming an oncologist. The restaurant business was still a passion of his, so in 1973, he bought a space at 68 Greenwich Avenue and opened Elephant and Castle, a local favorite that remains open today. By the time he opened the NoHo Star in 1985, he was the head of the radiation oncology department at St. Vincent’s Hospital, where he also chaired the research committee.
As much as he loved living downtown, “there were not really any nice places where you could sit and have a drink and a bite,” said Bonnie Jenkins, the manager of Keen’s Steakhouse (which Schwarz acquired and renovated in the ’70s) and co-executor of Schwarz’s estate. “There was the Oak Room uptown and Nat King Cole bar, there was nothing like that downtown, so that’s what he tried to bring.”
The centerpiece of Temple Bar is a ceramic panel of slab silhouettes titled “Friday Night,” also by Kogelnik, the artist behind the bar’s enigmatic logo. It was the first thing Rabin pictured when he learned the space was available. “To me in my head, I kept seeing the amber glow, and this,” he said, tracing one of the white shapes with his finger. “I thought, ‘Oh my god, it’s still there.’” According to Stephen Hepworth, Director of the Kiki Kogelnik Foundation, the piece a three-dimensional version of the artist’s 1988 painting “Grey Friday,” which was part of a series of seven paintings each named for a day of the week, like “Blue Monday,” “Red Saturday” and “Yellow Sunday.”
In the series, Kogelnik, a close friend and contemporary of Roy Lichtenstein and Claes Oldenberg whose work is in the Centre Pompidou in Paris, played with a series of everyday items, such as tools, and animals like lizards and flies. Eventually, she evolved these motifs to represent an alphabet, Hepworth explained. “There’s a wall piece called ‘A to Z.’ It’s 26 different things, there was an alphabet established in that way.”
I pause. “Does that mean…?”
“The piece in Temple Bar spells something? No,” he said with a laugh. “I wish I could tell you there was some secret message on the wall, but it doesn’t.”
Manning the door at the new Temple Bar will be Disco, the “legendary doorman” whom Goyal describes as “one of New York’s great humans” and who worked the door at Bungalow 8 in the early aughts. “When they came to me about the reopening, I thought it was a blast from the past,” Disco said. Between the four partners and three “very high level maitre d’s,” Rabin said, it will be mostly reservation-based, a “private club without being a private club.”
But Disco anticipates a line. “I think a door person is an artist and our room is the canvas. You want to try and make a masterpiece,” he said. “You want to be able to walk into the room and go ‘wow, this is a good looking room.’ You want people to leave and say, ‘I had a good time, we had a good crowd in there.’” He reads people within the first minute of meeting them. “After doing the door for so long, you just know how to pick up certain vibes from people,” he said. “I have friends come out and hang out and they say ‘I don’t understand how you do this job. I don’t understand how you pick certain people,’” but he credits 26 years on the job with honing his instincts. What will he look for? “Positive energy.”