Tokyo's Coolest Hotel Bar

By Carey Jones |
Old Imperial Bar, cocktail, bar

© Carey Jones

There’s one Tokyo hotel bar that every guidebook and every traveler will tell you to visit: the New York Bar, suspended fifty-two stories high, in the Park Hyatt Tokyo. Where Scarlett Johansson brooded over a cocktail in Lost In Translation, where jazz music entertains each night, where the views are nothing short of spellbinding.

But on a recent trip to the city, the hotel bar that truly captivated me was clear across town and had no view to speak of. The ceilings low, the atmosphere clubby. Whereas so much of Tokyo, to an American, can seem hopelessly futuristic — the neon signs! the skyscrapers! the hi-tech toilets! (oh, the hi-tech toilets) — Old Imperial Bar is straight out of another era.

It sits within the Imperial Hotel, a Tokyo grande dame lovingly maintained over its 125-plus years of history. Today one of the Leading Hotels of the World, the Imperial first opened in 1890 as an official Meiji government guesthouse for Western dignitaries. In 1923, famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright unveiled the new Imperial, a building of international acclaim. And while that structure no longer stands, nowhere is Wright’s design sense more apparent than in the Old Imperial Bar.

In the bar you’ll see terra cotta walls from the original structure, and motifs from the 1923 Imperial abound—geometric patterns reflected in the furniture, the glassware, down to the ashtrays and matchbooks. Old Hollywood luminaries from Cary Grant to Marilyn Monroe visited the Art Deco cocktail lounge, but today, it’s more of a local institution than a tourist attraction. Regulars book out their tables and even individual seats at the bar. “What do you call them in America— power lunches?” our host, a veteran of Imperial Hotel, asked. “This is a power bar.”

It’s an intimate space that seems suited to sipping spirits, and indeed you’ll find many men nursing their Nikka, a world-class Japanese whisky. Yet the cocktail menu is strong in its own right. Its cocktails befit the lounge, falling fully within mid-century tastes, all made to exacting standards. Chief bartender Makoto Ido, with decades of experience behind the bar, is a master of his craft. My fiancé, a New York mixologist, marveled at his skill and precision.

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A pin-spot shines onto each place at the bar, giving the effect of a placemat, such that each prepared drink is set, quite literally, in the spotlight.

I ordered a Sidecar, as befits an old-fashioned, elegant hotel. Ido shook the drink with a controlled flutter and poured into a paper-thin cocktail glass with a prepared sugar rim. I’m never partial to a sugar rim — the drink ends up too sweet, the outside of the glass sticky — but I held my tongue and let Ido continue, and I’m glad I did. He set the thinnest, most precise sugar rim possible, as if individual sugar grains were perched on the edge, contributing more texture than taste.

When we spotted Amer Picon, an orange liqueur all but impossible to come by in the States, Ido proffered a taste; when he saw my obvious delight, he poured me a few more ounces, with an obvious wink. Customer service is paramount in Japan, but this level service and thoughtfulness is notable in the Imperial Hotel in particular — a place where kimono-clad women escort you to your elevator and bow deeply as the doors close.Fully embracing the Eastern hotel vibe, I next ordered a Singapore Sling, to which Ido replied without missing a beat: Japanese-style, or Raffles-style? Well, both. The Raffles, based on the original early 20th-century recipe from the Raffles Hotel in Singapore, sported an over-the-top orchid garnish; the Japanese, less fruity, more balanced, more restrained in its sweetness.

Japanese bartending is heavy on aesthetics and ritual. One bar professional described it as descending from Japanese tea ceremonies, all about control, pacing, and formality. Watching Ido prepare each drink so exactingly only confirmed this theory. 

I mused aloud that my grandfather, a managing director of Tokyo Disneyland during the 1980s, must have found himself at the Old Imperial Bar before. Ido’s face lit up when he heard the word “Disney.” He ran to retrieve a signed drawing of Tinker Bell. He recounted what was clearly a favorite story: For the Imperial’s 100th anniversary, they held a competition to create its new signature cocktail. The winning bartender dubbed his drink the “Tinker Bell,” in honor of his Disney-loving young daughter. 

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Months later, a man came to sit at the Old Imperial Bar and ordered a Tinker Bell. “I’m Marc Davis,” he said, “and I designed and animated Tinker Bell.” He sketched and signed a drawing of Tinker Bell perched on a cocktail glass that the bar keeps framed to this day.

So many old hotel bars have a palpable soul to them, a soul born of decades of history, but don’t have the cocktail chops to match. They lost and never regained the skilled bartenders of an earlier era, real or imagined, where one could sidle up to any hotel bar and sip a proper gimlet or Sidecar.

The Old Imperial Bar is a rare breed then, a classic bar with full command of classic cocktails. Today you’ll find hotel bars all over the world with ambitious mixology programs. But to me, it’s far more exciting to find a historical bar that still retains the grandeur and elegance of years past — like the Imperial Hotel itself.

(A postscript, for those staying in the hotel, who might wish replicate this marathon cocktail tasting: Room service is 24 hours; the in-room pajamas are awfully comfy; and the club sandwich is top-notch.)

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