The New Nostalgia
Music for a grown up’s ears
The Martignetti brothers’ new piano bar brings ‘nightlife for adults’ back to the Upper East Side. No reservations required.
New York is in the grips of a piano-bar revival, in full nostalgia mode, with a surge in well-dressed crowds sipping classic cocktails under expert lighting, while familiar tunes play from Steinway grands. After endless months spent digging through home bars, shaking up couch cocktails in sweats while listening to Spotify playlists, New Yorkers are craving a bit of glamour these days.
And so, for the first time in memory, there are long lines outside Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle Hotel, which reopened last spring after a pandemic hiatus. The 20-somethings now elbowing out the old-timers among the bar’s iconic Madeline murals may have first heard pianist Earl Rose’s performances virtually in the months it was closed.
Meanwhile, it’s almost impossible to snag reservations for The Nines, a swanky lounge serving $95 baked potatoes with caviar that brought the spirit of Bemelmans downtown, to Great Jones Street, in January, with a singing pianist, red velvet curtains, and crystal chandeliers. Restaurateur Jon Neidich transformed the old Acme space into the sort of supper club where Don Draper might have carried on an illicit affair—if he could talk his way into this exclusive room.
But don’t tell brothers Anthony and Tom Martignetti that their new piano bar, Melody’s, which opened mid-April in the former Lexington Bar and Books space on the Upper East Side, might be part of this trend. “Unlike other new spots that have opened, we have no interest in pretending to be a Bemelmans knockoff,” says Tom.
The veteran bar and restaurant owners have split personalities. They’re equally known for their downtown party spots, like the late, lamented Southside, as their sedate neighborhood eateries, like East Pole, on the Upper East Side. Melody’s falls somewhere in the middle. It’s a mature spot for quality conversation and cocktails. And it might still descend into late-night debauchery.
Antique seashell sconces, black marble café tables, and Versace wallpaper in a tropical botanical print, give the subterranean space a luxe clubhouse feel. No need to score a reservation, though—Melody’s doesn’t take them. And there’s no gatekeeper above the stairs curating the crowd.
“We are first come, first serve, so please just show up,” says Tom. “Imagine sitting in a relaxing environment where the business is not trying to get as much money from you as possible or saying that you have to order food as well.”
Melody’s offers limited bar snacks, including potato chips with caviar and a truffled mac & cheese, but the focus here is on music and drinks. The cocktail list, from barman Mitar Prentic (moonlighting from Employees Only downtown), includes playfully named riffs on classics, like the Goodnight Everyone, a Negroni with amaro filling in for Campari. A pianist starts nightly at 6pm; jazz ensembles come on after 9pm.
The Martignettis, who don’t often talk to the press—save for an occasional strategically placed call to Page Six—agreed to answer a few questions about their latest neighborhood haunt for Digital Party.
How did you acquire the space that became Melody’s?
Bar and Books was unfortunately collateral damage of the first wave of Covid-mandated government shutdowns back in the spring of 2020. We had some businesses that were in similar situations and had similar fates, so we didn’t want to dance on the grave of another small business, as many of our peers have done, by rushing out and taking spaces that someone else put their heart, soul, and savings into and was forced to close through no fault of their own.
The space sat empty for about a year with a “for rent by owner” sign in the window. Both my brother and I would walk by the space almost every day shaking our heads and wondering if we should call the landlord. I kept saying to myself, “if the sign is still up next week we will call.”
What were the big changes you made to the Bar and Books space?
Bar and Books was a much-loved and worn-in space that encouraged indoor smoking for 33 years. Because of this, there was a lot of work to be done—more than we originally intended.
My brother and I do all of the design and building for our spots ourselves. We started by finding the right wallpaper and using green as our base color. Everything in the space is new, except for the outside wood of the bar, which we kept and shellacked black.
What was the neighborhood missing?
We wanted to bring nightlife for adults back to the Upper East Side. I use the word ‘back,’ because Bar and Books did accomplish this on some level. But the cigar smoke and other late-night activities definitely scared a lot of would-be customers away. There are a lot of busy bars on Second Avenue, certainly, but for a much-younger crowd.
The ultimate luxury is being able to sit down at a table with a date or with friends, being able to relax and listen to fantastic live jazz while drinking great cocktails. All this without being bumped into repeatedly, having to make a reservation a month ahead of time on some app, or being constantly told, “I am sorry we are fully committed.”
Were you inspired by Bemelmans Bar?
Actually, no. Bemelmans is a classic, beautiful, historic bar on Madison Avenue in the famous Carlyle Hotel. We are located on the bottom floor of a building that has seen better days on a block that has certainly seen better days, so the whole mood and setting are different.
We’ve been to Bemelmans many times and have enjoyed our times there immensely. I once met my celebrity crush Amanda Seyfried at Bemelmans. That night was an impromptu party to celebrate the opening of Mamma Mia! and I was just randomly sitting at the bar. I also saw my other celebrity crush, Colin Firth, there that night. Colin Firth and I are both leading men. The only difference is that only one of us is famous, acts in Oscar-winning movies, and looks good in Victorian clothes.
Melody’s Piano Bar is located at 1020 Lexington Avenue (at 73rd Street). It’s open daily, from 6pm ‘til late; melodyspianobar.com.
All Melody’s photos: Evan Sung.