Sunday, February 14, 2010

Dinner and a Show at the Café Carlyle

After our miserable experience attending A Little Night Music on Broadway, about which I wrote in “The Theatuh, the Theatuh . . .” and posted January 12th, I vowed to be more selective in the entertainment venues I frequent. A number of the readers who commented on that post suggested that I consider attending performances at the Metropolitan Opera or Carnegie Hall, where the experience can be counted on as being far more pleasant than the one I had at the Walter Kerr Theater where my Broadway night was, in my view, more akin to being assaulted on a crowded carnival midway than what I expected of a legitimate theater on the Great White Way.

The entry to the Carlyle Hotel, photo courtesy of same

While I plan on checking out the city’s more refined venues, when it comes to seeking out entertainment I am, at heart, more a fan of the American Songbook than of the Well-Tempered Clavier. Don’t misunderstand me: I adore classical music (or, as some say, “serious music”), and my radio dial is always tuned to the classical stations in both the city and the country. But when it comes to attending a live performance my tastes run to the more quotidian – I would much rather attend an evening of Dawn Upshaw singing popular standards than of her performing classical song cycles (which I have, by the way, and memorably so).

When I moved to New York after college I fell in with a rather louche set that would frequently wind up an evening at some of the city’s seedier piano bars, drunkenly shouting along to songs, much to the exasperation of the put-upon songster/piano players and other patrons. When such evenings became less than appealing to me (almost immediately) I pulled back, not just from the piano bars, but also from that crowd, since most of them appeared to be on a bullet train to a stint in rehab, and I didn’t want to join them there. But I quickly learned that what I liked about performances in such intimate spaces was entirely out of my budget when transferred to the city’s more upscale rooms, such as the Algonquin’s Oak Room or the Café Carlyle. The cost of dinner and a show at one of these uptown hotels was punishing on my junior banker’s income, and, besides, the patrons in such places were generally at least as old as my parents, if not my grandparents. It was all rather too grownup for my age or wallet. Fortunately I soon found other, more affordable and age-appropriate pursuits . . . but that’s a subject for another post.

This album got a lot of play in my house growing up

Anyway, fast-forward to this past October when Boy and I found ourselves at the Café Carlyle, where we met up with friends for dinner and a show featuring the very talented husband-and-wife team of John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey. I had not been to the Café Carlyle for several decades, when I was last taken there to see the legendary Bobby Short, but I decided to book a table there when I learned that the Pizzarelli/Molaskeys would be settled in for a run of performances ahead of the holidays. I am a big fan of their radio show, “Radio Deluxe,” broadcast on public radio stations, supposedly from their living room “high atop Lexington Avenue on the fashionable Upper East Side.” In the show they play an eclectic mix of recordings of American standards (and not-so-standards), interspersed with clever patter, and feature interesting guests drawn from the world of music and entertainment. The couple is immensely talented and amusing (they describe themselves as “the von Trapps on martinis”), and I make a point of listening to “Radio Deluxe” whenever I am at Darlington on Saturday afternoons.

John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey perform at the Cafe Carlyle
photo by Julieta Cervantes of the New York Times

When I learned they would be appearing in a run at the Café Carlyle I immediately decided to book a table, and roped several like-minded friends into joining us. We all had a lovely time that evening, and the Pizzarelli/Molaskeys put on a swinging, highly entertaining show. While an evening at the Café Carlyle doesn’t come cheaply (the Carlyle is, after all, one of the most expensive hotels in the world), the all-in cost per person for dinner, drinks, and the cover to see the show came in at less than the per-ticket price Boy and I subsequently paid to see A Little Night Music. There is absolutely no contest in my mind as to which was the better value.

Recently I learned that the very talented Christine Ebersole, star of Broadway, television, motion pictures, and the long-playing LP, was scheduled for a run at the Café Carlyle this February, so I immediately grabbed the phone and booked a table. Several years ago we were enchanted by Ms. Ebersole’s performance in the Broadway musical Grey Gardens, where she brought down the house (and won her second Tony) with her mesmerizing performance as both Big and Little Edie Beale. The New York Times gave her show at the Café a glowing review, describing her as “a goddess formed…in screwball heaven.”

We arrived at the Café Carlyle this past Thursday looking forward to another wonderful evening in its comfortable, swank room, and were welcomed by its gracious manager, Tony Skrelja, who led us to a table just a few feet from the stage. One of the pleasures of the Café, aside from its intimacy (it seats only 70 for dinner), is walls decorated with lovely murals of pretty girls, musicians, and harlequins painted in high Gigi-style (with more than a smattering of Picasso) in the late 1940s by the French artist Andre Vertes. The murals have recently been restored and cleaned and are attractively up-lighted so that the room has a flattering glow. The small lamp-shade-covered candles on each table help, too. Everyone looks marvelous under these conditions!

Photo courtsey of the Carlyle Hotel

One of the sideways pleasure of going someplace like the Café Carlyle is seeing who else is there. That night, our counterparts ran the gamut from elderly couples, who barely spoke to one other, to young couples with stars in their eyes; there were several tables of giddy bachelors having a lovely time, and there was a smattering of show-people of a “certain age” (Regis and Joy Philbin were at one table and Leslie Uggams and her husband at another). Plus there were the various types one sees in expensive hotels the world over: designer-label-smothered Russians; conservatively dressed Asians; and expensively-attired, shady looking people of indeterminate origin. The Café has a dress code (men must wear jackets), and everyone was dressed up for a swell night out.

Detail of the Vertes murals, image courtesy of the Carlyle Hotel

Ms. Ebersole’s performance that evening was a delight. She is a lovely woman of delicate beauty. She wore a retro—and elegant—taffeta and velvet cocktail dress, and her luxuriant blonde mane was pulled up, revealing sparkling diamond chandelier earrings. She is a skilled vocal chameleon with a phenomenal range and pitch-perfect voice. She trilled, she wailed, she growled, she moaned, she was happy, she was sad – in short, she was glorious! She was backed by a marvelous quartet led by John Oddo, that supported her with finesse. In between songs she shared amusing anecdotes, all delivered with a charming self-deprecating sense of humor, about life in show business and at home in suburban Maplewood, New Jersey, where she lives with three rambunctious teenagers and a loving husband. The room adored her and demanded she hit the stage for an encore, and she was more than happy to oblige. After the show I introduced myself to Ms. Ebersole and told her how much I enjoyed her performance. She couldn’t have been nicer.

A view towards the bar, featuring the recent addition of Bobby Short to the murals
Photo courtesy of the Carlyle Hotel

So here I am, all these years later, back again at the Café Carlyle. And yes, I am old enough to be the father of that boy who was scared away, way back when. But I can tell you, it’s a lot of fun to go there now and comfortably fit in with the place and the crowd. Now that I think of it, I've had such a grand time my last two visits at the Café Carlyle that I just might become something of a regular there – that is, if I haven’t started to become one already . . .

Christine Ebersole will be appearing nightly at the Café Carlyle through February 20th. More can be found out about her on her website:

More can be found out about John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey at their websites:, and

The Café Carlyle
The Carlyle Hotel
Madison Avenue at 76th Street
New York, New York
(212) 744-1600

Please note: Reggie has received nothing from the Cafe Carlyle in return for this review. He is sharing it with his readers solely out of the kindness of his heart, and expects nothing in return for it, except his readers' pleasure.


  1. Wonderful. Especially the usual crowd at luxury hotels. I have to wonder into which category I fall. I will pretend to be Russian, next time. I can't help but rather like the sound of the louche crowd, however.

  2. I love the Carlyle. I worked on it's refurbishment. Wonderful lobby by Thierry Despont, too. Happily, it is one grand old institution in New York that has survived.

  3. Regis gave Ms. Ebersole a rave review as well, on Regis and Kelly the following morning. She is a treasure and has only ever made it a wonderful and worthwhile evening for me, whenever I have seen her -- on Broadway, off Broadway, Cabarets, you name it, alothough lousy writing in some of her guest sitcom rolls have left me shaking my head. :) Thanks for the review, and the great photos.

  4. I'm afraid to mention I saw Bobby Short live at the Carlyle in the late 70's lest I fall into the wrong category! S'Wonderful has to be my all time favorite of all his songs.

  5. I'm so excited to read your review- we're seeing her one-night-only performance of this same show in Scottsdale in a couple of weeks, as soon as she closes at the Carlyle.

    I only wish I had the chance to see her at Cafe Carlyle, the intimacy of that gorgeous little room makes you feel as if you're part of the show.

    P in Phoenix

  6. I only wish we would have the time to see Christine Ebersole this month at the Cafe Carlyle. My husband and I also enjoyed her so much in Grey Gardens. The Carlyle is a wonderful, intimate venue that makes for a wonderful evening out on the town. We enjoyed seeing Jane Monheit on our last visit there. Your post reminds me to stay on top of their schedule and plan another evening soon.

    Reggie, if you enjoy jazz, you might try Dizzy's Coca Cola Club at the top of the Time Warner building in Columbus Circle. The setting is magnificent and the line-up is always top-rated!

    We did have a Valentine date at the NYC ballet at Lincoln Center for Swan Lake, which was amazingly beautiful - the music, the costumes, those bodies! However, I did think of your "Theatuh..." post, as the woman seated next to my husband, rather than offering a hearty, "Bravo!" was hooting and hollering as though she was at a football game. It was a bit disconcerting, I must say! It just goes to show you, nowhere is safe these days!
    Mrs. Marciano

  7. LPC: In order to be mistaken for one of the Russians you'll need to be in head-to-toe Dolce & Gabbana denim with gold lame accents...and yes, the louche crowd was fun...rather too much fun, it turns out!

    Anon 8:24: the lobby is one of the best in town! Thanks. I hear that it was pretty spectacular when decorated by Dorothy Draper, too.

    Anon 12:04: Ms. Ebersole really is delightful, thanks for your comment.

    Lindaraxa: I saw the estimable Mr. Short at the Cafe Carlyle in the 1980s, so I am fast in your footsteps!

    P In Phoenix: Thanks, you are in for a treat when you see her in Scottsdale.

    Mrs. Marciano: Thanks for your comment. Do check out the Cafe Carlyle's offerings, they feature marvelous performers. I shall most definitely look in to the Dizzy Room at the Time Warner Center, a great suggestion. I have a funny story about an exchange between two patrons at the Met opera that I heard years ago that I am afraid isn't printable. I've been thinking about posting it, but haven't figured out how to do so and still remain a "civilized" blog...

  8. Alas, the only time I made it to The Carlyle was on a trip to N.Y. to see the famous "Gates" in Central Park. Unfortunately my husband lost his battle with counting how many martinis he consumed. Needless to say the evening lost some luster but I will never forget that room!

  9. As a follow up - Ms. Ebersole was a delight! Her Scottsdale show was nearly sold out, and the audience had a great time.

    Now we've heard Elaine Stritch is coming back for more of her Sondheim show at the Carlyle, and we're counting pennies to see if we can swing a trip...

    P in Phoenix

  10. Hello P in Phoenix,
    So glad you liked her show. Tony Skrelja (the Cafe's manager) said that there is huge interest in Ms. Stritch's return engagement, so you are well-advised to book as soon as possible...
    Thanks for letting me know that you liked Ms. Ebersole's show,
    Rgds, Reggie

  11. Sounds like a heavenly place to spend an evening.

  12. It is great to read such a appreciative review of Cafe Carlyle. It is my all time favorite hotel and Cafe. I've been going there since the age of "four" when my Father was a VP for Pan American. It is New York at its finest and they have worked hard to keep it that way. Woody allen plays jazz there Monday nights during the summer.

  13. Help! I am going to Cafe Carlyle soon. My son has invited his father and I to experience a jazz show. I'm terrified we will dress inappropriately. Would you please tell me what exactly is appropriate dress for the evening?


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