At first glance, the Bolla Bar at the Stoneleigh Hotel is borderless. It’s hard to tell if you’re in the lobby or actually in the bar itself—or if somehow you’re in both at once. People wheel suitcases through. The sparkling chandeliers and the plush satin seating wrap around square marble columns and convey opulence and elegance. The smooth arch of the bar itself, a wooden semicircle, a proscenium of sorts, is lovely.
Rooms at the Stoneleigh start at $219, and the service at the bar is solid, the way you’d expect from a high-end hotel with a much-vaunted art deco style and a list of whites by the glass that start at $8 (happy hour wines are $5). When my glass neared empty, a server appeared. Water was refilled consistently, unobtrusively. My friend drank cosmopolitans, remarking that each was different in taste and texture and that each was good.
Though the night was cooling off and the patio facing Maple was inviting, we chose to sit indoors. The Friday we were there was Lounge Noir night; a three-piece jazz band led by Clate Bowen played. Against the backdrop of loungy covers, my friends and I talked about their recent trip to Amsterdam and the Black Forest in Germany, about complex beers and complicated ethics, about what it means to shoot only for the ideal or act on real-world practicalities. A third friend, a poet, joined us for an hour after helping soothe her dark-haired year-old girl to sleep. She ordered a Brooklyn Lager, and we ate remarkably good quesadillas.
Earlier that night, as lobby furniture was removed and the band was setting up, we’d seen wedding guests (we assumed) walk by, their formal attire and best hair ready to celebrate. Multiple dressed-up generations sat together and had drinks. As the evening wore on, the crowd got younger. Early twentysomething women in hot pants and ’80s-style silky strapless tops wandered in. One woman sitting at the bar had leg showing almost all the way up to her hip. I found myself startled to see so much flesh, then wondered if this was part of a new fashion the way the ’80s-style clothes are.
I wondered, too, if the young people were regulars, coming in every Friday night, ordering the same drinks, calling the bartenders by name. There’s a story about Stoneleigh regulars that ran in D Magazine in 1977. It is about the Lion’s Den, the hotel’s bar that preceded Bolla. (There was a $36 million hotel renovation a couple of years ago.) The Lion’s Den story was written by A.C. Greene, and it has a depth of knowledge that’s hard to ignore, a powerful sense of place and time and the sad, wealthy, divorced men who drank in the Den. Reading it before I wrote this column hurt me a little. Not because of the story itself—though I had myriad responses to the fine writing and also winced at some of Greene’s language and the ways men talked about their former wives. The small hurt I felt was because I don’t know the Stoneleigh the way Greene did. He drank there regularly. I do not.
There’s a kind of knowledge that comes from not knowing a place. From the anonymity of sliding into somewhere new and watching a single night in it unfold, as if nothing in it existed before or will hence, as if everything were wrapped up in this moment, now. Everything is so shiny when it’s new, the unfamiliar colors so bright. Time and knowledge uncover the rough edges, but beginnings are Technicolor bright. I love shiny first encounters with the exciting unfamiliar. But more than that, I love the intimacy of knowledge, the slow work of listening and the slower waiting as meaning unfolds.
I’ll only ever know a few places well enough to write like A.C. Greene wrote about the Stoneleigh. My time isn’t endless and so I make choices. I cannot know every place. I cannot know every person. Some complexities and details will always be hidden. I sat with my friends over a glass of wine and listened. And talked while they listened. I knew each of them a little more by the end of the night and did not learn a single story about the older woman sitting in her multigenerational group. Depth of knowledge costs breadth. And those limits induce wistful pangs.
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