Behind the Bar: Frank Caiafa at the Stayton Room
One of the latest additions to the NYC cocktail scene helps reclaim the city’s past hotel bar glory
All images courtesy the Lexington Hotel Autograph
There was a time a few years ago it seemed hotel bar culture in the Big Apple was rotting from the core. With few exceptions, many of its grand hotel bars had either closed to the public, or were transformed into soulless, brightly lit, loud, overpriced, neon colored, __tini-serving versions of their former selves. It was as if the new owners had never actually been to a bar. However, as cocktail culture boomeranged back from the psychedelic, powdered sour mix dimension it went off to in the 1970s and ‘80s, by the 2000s, visiting tourists and New Yorkers alike expected hotels to get with the proper cocktail program. Now, once again, some of the best places to get a drink in Manhattan are new or revamped hotel bars (Dear Irving on Hudson at the Aliz, Raines Law Room at the William, Bar Fiori at the Langham, the Polynesian at the Pod, the Rum House at the Edison, the bars at the NoMad, The Bar Room at the Beekman, Ophelia in the Beekman Tower, Le Bain at the Standard, Bar Pleiades at the Surrey—just to name a scant few in Manhattan alone). This past summer, the Stayton Room in the Lexington Hotel Autograph checked in on East 48th St. to join the revival.
The Stayton Room’s beverage director is Frank Caiafa, who previously managed the program at Peacock Alley and La Chine in the Waldorf Astoria before the hotel was sold to new investors and closed in 2017. During that time, Caiafa, who held the position since 2005, took on the arduous task of updating the Old Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book, which was originally written by Albert Stevens Crocket and published in 1935, just a few years after Prohibition ended. Caiafa’s new version, the Waldorf Astoria Bar Book, was published in 2016. It masterfully tips its hat at the old recipes while also providing much needed updates and variations, as well as adding entirely new recipes (including how to make homemade ingredients like syrups), tips and tool guides. In a way, this is also what Caiafa has done with this new bar, which is aesthetically a nod to the swank, 1920s art deco sheen of the Lexington Hotel’s past, but with accessible offerings for modern guests and passersby.
The staff is well trained in the art of mixing drinks, and the bar is set up like any modern cocktail bar should be—with fresh ingredients at the ready and a quality selection of wine, beer and spirits from lower to high end. “There was a time things like homemade bitters and syrups were still an exotic afterthought in this kind of bar,” says Caiafa. “Nowadays no one shrugs at that. People from all over know good ingredients now and expect a properly made drink.” He also keeps the drinks fairly simple to attract a range of visitors and also control volume at the bar.
The bar is named for William H. Stayton, a U.S. naval officer-turned attorney who founded the Association Against Prohibition. One of his main platforms was that the 18th Amendment was a violation of the Fifth Amendment, because those prosecuted for violating it could be punished at both the state and federal level—essentially they could be tried twice for the same crime in what is known as double jeopardy. Stayton was also instrumental in publicizing the financial burden of the so-called Noble Experiment, which caused a significant decline in tax revenue (his main followers were those in high society), and he is ultimately credited with being one of the most influential figures in bringing the whole catastrophe to its end. Finally, there’s a bar named for a historically Prohibition era thing that doesn’t glamorize its existence!
As a further nod to the location’s former jazz age splendor, a rotating group of jazz musicians perform live in the space adjacent to the bar three times a week. A menu of bar bites from Chef Richard Sandoval is also available. There’s even a Champagne vending machine in the lobby (guests purchase a token at the bar)!
The idea, simply, is that “people come here to drink,” says Caiafa. “Whether you’re here because you need a place for a Manhattan, or you want to hold a business meeting at a spot with good drinks or simply find it by accident, it’s here for you.”
The bar is open from breakfast till late-ish. For more information, including hours and location, please click here.
Caiafa believes a good drink at a bar can also be made at home. Here’s the recipe for the Stayton Room’s signature drink.
1/4 oz. Cardamom Infused White Rum (recipe follows)
¾ oz fresh lime juice
Add all ingredients to mixing glass. Add ice and shake until well-chilled. Strain into a chilled coupe glass. Add a dried banana chip for optional garnish.
Cardamom Infused Rum
Add 10 cardamom pods to .375 ml. of white rum of choice and let infuse for three days, turning bottle occasionally. Fine strain and use. Lasts indefinitely.