New York Drinking: NYC's Campbell Apartment packs a great Prohibition punch

NYC's Campbell Apartment packs a great Prohibition punch.

Fighting my way through the late-afternoon rush-hour crush in Grand Central Terminal's main hall, I am reminded that New York City may be cleaner and safer than it was in the early 1980s, but it certainly isn't any less crowded. Thankfully, the Campbell Apartment, an elegant lounge tucked into the southwest corner of the legendary train station's balcony, provides an upscale oasis in business-minded midtown.

A sophisticated getaway for New York's élite, the room first gained notoriety in 1923 when tycoon John W. Campbell, chairman of the board of the Credit Clearing House, rented the space. Campbell overhauled the forty-by-sixty-foot spot, furnishing the interior with chairs and tables from Italy, Persian rugs, a pipe organ and a grand piano, and even, it's said, having his decorators lay on their backs for months to paint the newly timbered 25-foot-high ceiling. The result: a 13th-century Florentine palace, replicated.

Campbell and his wife treated the site as their own private reception hall, hosting long society evenings of wine and music. But when current proprietor Mark Grossich leased the club in 1998, the space showed no trace of its former glory: the walls were whitewashed, the windows boarded up. Even so, Grossich, CEO of Hospitality Holdings Inc., recognized the room's appeal and set about recreating the swish atmosphere of the original.

One year and US$1.5 million later, the bar's ornate brass doors opened to the public. Its splendour restored, the Campbell Apartment promises “cocktails from another era.” And it lives up to the claim.

Perched at the long bar, I'm transported back to the Roaring Twenties. Waitresses in black cocktail dresses and strands of pearls move from table to table, delivering drinks to well-heeled patrons, while upbeat jazz tunes keep the dark room festive. The club's signature drink, Prohibition Punch, is a heady mix of Appleton Estate V/X Jamaica rum, Grand Marnier, Moët & Chandon champagne, and passion fruit juice, served in an oversized snifter glass.

The specialty drink's name hints at the bar's playful tone, but it's definitely not a casual joint. While I was there, the maitre d' gently but firmly ousted two 20-somethings in white running shoes who tried to sneak past the “proper attire required” sign. Which was probably for the best–the duo wouldn't have fit in with the rest of the scene.

“We appeal to a certain sensibility,” explains Grossich, who also runs the Carnegie Club, one of New York's only licensed smoking lounges. And judging from the Campbell Apartment's plush interior, polished customers and sophisticated ambiance, that sensibility is all about luxury.