Somebody kicked out the tourists and invited all the beautiful people. It's that kind of night at the Thom Bar in SoHo. The warm light makes everyone look fabulous, the potent martinis inspire greatness. As the DJ spins an aural tapestry of Jamaican infused hip-hop, an Asian man in a white plumed Native American headdress and jeans bounds through a crowd of the hip and the would-be hip.
Now and then, weary travelers with armfuls of luggage and rest on their minds stumble in and find a lobby filled with loungers, cocktails in hand.
The New York City nightlife scene has invaded tourist territory: the hotel bar. From midtown through the Flatiron District down to SoHo, hotels have become magnets for the club crowd, who now curl up on lobby couches and claim corner coffee tables as their own. Hotel lobbies have begun to attract the young movie and artiste crowd along with fashionistas who haven't eaten in days but must have that $12 cosmo.
"Hotel bars used to be where the old traveling salesman went for a drink," said Maria Lin, a slender, fashionably dressed young writer sipping her Grey Goose and tonic at the Thom Bar inside the hotel 60 Thompson. "Now it's for the younger crowd."
That is music -- perhaps with a techno-beat -- to the ears of Jason Pomeranc, 32, co-owner of the hotel and bar, which opened two years ago. "They breathe personality into the place," he said of his hipster clientele. "They set the tone for what the place is going to be over time."
The boutique hotels, which sell $300-a-night rooms and the promise of a chichi New York experience right down to the Blisslabs toiletries, were started about a decade ago by Ian Schrager, of long-ago Studio 54 disco fame. But it's the bar with an edgy New York feel that's capturing the jet-setters now. For that, owners roll out watering holes with names such as the Sanctum and the Gallery, which draw well-dressed hipsters with a healthy thirst and money to spare.
Nor are these clubgoers mere window dressing. In the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the clubgoers became a consumer bedrock, sustaining the hotels as the city's tourism business slowed to a dribble. In the spring of 2001, the Tribeca Grand on lower Sixth Avenue had unveiled its Church Lounge, which all but proved the hotel's salvation in the tough months ahead.
"All the business we were tapping into vanished," said Tony Fant, vice president of the Tribeca and SoHo Grand hotels. "Tourists weren't going to be coming here. The business had to focus on the local New Yorker and existing customers."
Fant says when they ran the numbers for guests and customers at the Tribeca Grand and its sister hotel, the SoHo Grand, they discovered that 75 percent of their bar crowd came from New York.
Back at the Thom Bar, Lin scopes out the crowd. She jumped on the hotel bar circuit two years ago, making her something of a veteran. Her eye takes in the blond-wood-paneled lobby, the minimalist decor of black cushioned chairs and candles, and a sea of stylish clientele tipping cocktail glasses.
"Everyone is looking good, everyone is very polished. They're not trying too hard," said Lin, her own outfit a carefully casual mix of white tank top and blue jeans. "When you go to a club you see a lot of B and T people wearing spandex."
Lin's dig is directed at the "bridge and tunnel" crowd, interlopers from New Jersey and Long Island who jump the pond into Manhattan and horrify the local cocktail crowd with their wild hair and un-hip language and behavior.
"This feels like New York," said Lin's friend, Brian Wong, 29, who was himself born and raised in California.
Scotch sippers with memories of the Algonquin (where Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley eviscerated their literary rivals over drinks) may long for the days when bars hosted literary circles. But young tourists and New Yorkers find in these new hotel bars an alternative to nightclubs in a setting with higher cachet than the corner beer joint.
Anthony Yang, 28, began hitting the hotel bar scene one year ago, drawn by the exclusive feel and relaxed atmosphere that makes it easy for him to meet new people. Also, there were no rope lines.
"It feels welcoming because you don't have a stringent door policy," said Yang, who works in finance.
Which is not to say there is no door policy, and a pecking order. The imposing doormen in designer clothes pick out the riffraff: the poorly dressed or insufficiently hip. They simply ask to see a room key.
But the quest to attract the ultra-cool can ring of phoniness, too, said some critics of the phenomenon. Suzanne Tremblay, the owner of the Gershwin Hotel in the Flatiron District, has painted her lobby blood red in homage to pop art and the 1970s New York counterculture. With a lot of work, she created the desired fringe artist look, defined here as hosting Blondie singer Deborah Harry's poetry readings and letting filmmakers shoot their projects on the hotel roof.
But the hotel bar is another matter. She rented out the space to a group of enterprising club owners and now regrets the bar's exclusive feel.
"They have nothing of our essence," she said, about the new hotels. "They are all the same. They have reached a different plateau of the same thing."
This matters little to those listening to the DJs spinning alternative music and scoping out the crowd.
At the SoHo Grand, Lynda Wiggins, 45, cocktail in hand and a lifetime of watching nightlife fads come and go, says she hits the hotel bars for her vodka sea breezes, the music and the same reason anyone goes anywhere in this city.
"We want to hang out with people that are attractive," said the Manhattan real estate agent.
"They're skinny," added her friend, Michael Bolla. "And they're not loud."
For more than a few harried tourists, a touch of hip -- even in a hotel lobby, even the calculated designer version -- is part of the fantasy of New York. Shortly after 9 p.m. Sam Weiser, 44, an investment consultant dragged his rumpled self and luggage into the lobby at the SoHo Grand ending a day that began 17 hours earlier in Chicago.
The music was 1980s throwback, the crowd was buzzing and Weiser for a moment relished a break from traveling on business with others "slogging away on the road warrior" circuit.
"I'd rather be somewhere with young people than conventioneers," he said, ready to ascend to his room. "It keeps you young and it keeps you current."