The upscale cocktail lounge had its heyday in mid-twentieth century Manhattan, bridging the divide between Prohibition-era speakeasies and modern-day cocktail bars. Although the definition of the cocktail lounge is fluid, spanning hotel bars, airport bars, “martini bars,” and even 1960s- and 1970s-era singles bars, what all have in common is an upscale clientele and, of course, lots of alcohol, particularly cocktails—which served to lubricate the social activity taking place within these public spaces.
These lounges exist in striking contrast to the taverns and saloons of the 1800s and very early 1900s, which functioned as centers of community for many working-class and immigrant groups, as well as places to purchase alcohol. See saloons and taverns. During these same years, bars within upscale hotels and elite private clubs also served plenty of cocktails and spirits, catering to a wealthier group.
When Prohibition went into effect in 1920, saloons were widely shuttered, while hotel bars and the like were converted into ice cream parlors or other milder entertainments. During this era, spanning until the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, drinking moved to speakeasies or cocktail parties held in private homes, the latter a trend that continued well into the Depression-era 1930s as a practical, economical way to entertain. Alcohol consumption did not go away; it merely moved underground. Indeed, many famed cocktail lounges started and thrived during Prohibition, such as the glamorous, celebrity-studded Stork Club and 21 Club. See prohibition; stork club; and “21” club.
In the years following Prohibition, consumption of alcoholic drinks swiftly moved back into the public sphere. According to Andrew Barr’s Drink: A Social History, in the years immediately following repeal a whopping nine-tenths of alcoholic drinks were consumed in bars and restaurants, and this was despite measures taken to stem public drinking, such as abolition of the word “saloon” in many states; other states restricted sale of spirits “by the drink” to hotels, restaurants, and clubs where meals were served.
Of course, this did not mean that the speakeasy had been completely forgotten. Indeed, the mid-century cocktail lounge often invoked nostalgia for the naughty thrill of the speakeasies, serving martinis and other classic cocktails in a swanky setting that also nodded to customers’ rising appetite for Hollywood-style glamor in the 1940s and 1950s. Cocktail lounges were often a favored setting in films and patronized by movie stars and society types, and many offered entertainment (creating some overlap with nightclubs and jazz clubs).
As the 1960s and 1970s brought the sexual revolution, the dimly lit cocktail lounge also became synonymous with the thriving singles scene at bars like Maxwell’s Plum. See maxwell’s plum. In general, the potent drinks of this period were of little culinary note, and the thriving nightlife was of paramount importance.
Cocktail lounges continue to exist today. A distinction should be drawn, however, between lounges and the highly drink-centric cocktail bars that have grown and flourished in the past two decades.
See also cocktails.