Welcome to Nightlife’s Time Machine Era

Whether midcentury Miami or Sinatra’s Vegas, grungy ‘90s Manhattan or glossy ’70s midtown, the coolest hot spots seem to be borrowing from previous decades.

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Maybe I started to notice it when I saw a 20-something at a party yell, “I love this fucking song” when a DJ started playing the self-titled track off Donald Fagen’s 1982 solo album The Nightfly, and then when she danced with her small group of friends like it was the hottest new club banger and not a solo cut by a member of Steely Dan. It could have been when people started asking me out “for martinis” instead of “for drinks.” It could have been when I found myself at Bemelmans Bar witnessing first-hand that, yes, Gen. Z is really into the famous spot, or when I found myself with a Sazerac in my hand at Columns in New Orleans, feeling like I was in a Tennessee Williams play, or when I saw Sporty & Rich doing a collab with L.A.’s famous Sunset Tower Hotel. At some point, I realized that everything new about going out these days is old. But it’s a new sort of old; it’s not people going out and trying to recreate partying that looks or sounds or feels like a specific time, it’s a mix. A mish-mosh of everything that came before is all available to you on any given night of the week.

The ideas aren’t retro, mind you. It isn’t one specific decade being back. This isn’t the swing revival of the 1990s or another “[Insert whatever decade here] is so hot right now” sort of thing. It’s little bits of dirt and decadence from previous decades all mixing together. My friends in Miami, who used to prefer old-man dives over clubs, are telling me that The Key Club in Coconut Grove—a place designed to look like a throwback to the city’s mid-century glory days, but with sushi, espresso martinis and good lighting for perfect selfies—is their favorite place. People are going out for Champagne and caviar at places like Airs in the West Village. My Brooklyn friends now prefer to go into Manhattan and hang out at Temple Bar, a place that opened in 1989, got popular a decade later with people that wanted to live like they were on Sex and the City, and closed on December 31st of 2017. The bar has since reopened, but it’s not updated, renovated or meaningfully changed in any way. This is how it is now.

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Restauranteurs Marc Rose and Med Abrous are leading the charge. They converted an old storage closet on the mezzanine level of the Hollywood Roosevelt into an Art Deco cocktail den called the Spare Room, and their next project is to reopen La Dolce Vita, the Beverly Hills Italian spot originally opened with help from Frank Sinatra in the late 1960s. Rose thinks there’s a simple reason this old-school mentality for going out is on the rise. “I think right now that people are excited to use less technology when they’re out,” he says. “They want to feel that luxurious feeling of being taken care of.” With an opening date targeted for later in the summer, they’re still working out the details, but perhaps more important than things like “the menu” or “the cocktail list” is that they have the feel worked out. “It’s a red sauce restaurant. Classic. And we want to embrace that,” Abrous says. “We want to get away from the casual a little bit,” Rose adds. “And get back to this formality and excitement about going out.”

Rose and Abrous seem to be onto something. Ever since Carbone took its show on the road, going from being the hottest reservation in Manhattan to one of the most coveted in Miami as well, diners have been eager to feel like cast members from Goodfellas, just sitting around a few big plates of barely-touched rigatoni and fettucini. That honestly sounds great anywhere, but even more so when it’s a place with history.

Sometimes it isn’t just the bar, it’s about the entertainment. Every other new spot that opens seems to be putting up a disco ball and Ciao Ciao in Williamsburg is dark and moody…except for the lightup dancefloor straight out of Saturday Night Fever, but it’s not all disco balls and Giorgio Moroder-produced tracks. Elsewhere, the piano is taking over the DJ booth. At recent party for Matt Hranek’s new book celebrating the Martini, Louis B Middleton tickled the ivories while people started the night off with gin cocktails. As I was walking out, I got a text from a friend asking if I wanted to join them later in the week at the Nines, a place billed as “timeless supper club and piano bar,” where cocktails like the classic Daiquiri and the 1990s staple Cosmopolitan live together in harmony on the menu. The food offers a mix of oysters, foie gras and smoked salmon, but it’s the club sandwich, that perfect stack of meats and veggies born out of late-19th century private clubs, that everybody tells you to get. In L.A., where the piano bar has a long and storied history, the people behind the new downtown spot the Stowaway know they can offer something a lot of other places don’t. Something they believe people want.

Inside the Stowaway.

Anna Azarov

“An environment that’s not passive,” Director of Entertainment Julian Velard says. “People have been stuck inside their houses for two years and they can have any piece of passive entertainment they want, whether it’s movies or television. We have access to everything now, to the point where if it’s not immediate, we aren’t interested. Now when we come to a public space we want to feel like we’re a part of it. We want to feel that we can affect the outcome of the evening.” People seem eager to step in and be the main character—and if you’re going to look glam on the ‘Gram or make TikTok think you’re living your best life, the right setting is as important as what you’re wearing.

Velard believes a bar with live music—but live music where the audience can take it or leave it, talk or listen—is what people want more of. And what is better than a good, old-fashioned Billy Joel circa-1973 piano player? “To me,” Velard says, “The performers who succeed in those environments are the ones who allow the audience to do whatever they want to do. That’s when you really know when something has value. When people can’t help but listen to you. It may only happen for one set, but it’s like finding gold when it happens. To me, it feels like the closest thing to objective greatness.”

It’s well established that nostalgia and trends seem to work in 20-year cycles. I always figured that this dynamic was driven by people who were alive during a specific time, but not old enough to truly experience it, living out a fantasy with the benefit of hindsight. Whatever it is we’re looking for now feels less like a reach for something specific, though. It’s not about grabbing some look or sound attached to a certain decade, like the way things used to be.

Recently, I stood outside Temple Bar by myself smoking a joint, trying to numb myself after a long day. Two twentysomethings walked out and lit up cigarettes. (Those, as you may have read, are also back.) As I stood there, me smoking my weed and the couple smoking their cigarettes, all of us about to return to an old bar that’s cool again to order more martinis, it dawned on me that our obsession with nightlife trends past isn’t just an exercise in nostalgia. It goes back to what Velard told me about how people want environments that aren’t passive. We’re reaching back to the past because classics never really go out of style—but also the quality that defined pre-cellphone camera nightlife was more often than not unabashed fun. People used to know how to live it up when they went out, and now we’re trying to follow their lead.

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