A Drink with Dale DeGroff
October 2019 marks the 85th anniversary of the Rainbow Room. In honor of the occasion, we spoke with one of the key figures in the venue's history, renowned mixologist Dale DeGroff.
In 1987, DeGroff helped relaunch the Rainbow Room under the guidance of heavy-hitter restaurateur Joe Baum. Helming the Rainbow Promenade bar on the 65th floor of 30 Rock, DeGroff revived the city's long-forgotten cocktails while elevating service to an art form. Being a "personality behind the bar," he says, helped smooth out some of the bumps at the very beginning.
DeGroff's influence soon spread from Rockefeller Center across New York and the rest of the country, through the cocktails he created and the many bartenders he mentored, as well as through awards, press and his two books, The Craft of the Cocktail and The Essential Cocktail. While the glittering Rainbow Room faced an untimely closure in 1998 (before reopening once again), its inspiration can still be felt in bars and restaurants everywhere.
Over a few drinks, Front & Center caught up with DeGroff to find out more about his reign at the Rainbow, which at the time comprised two floors of lounges, restaurants and party spaces.
The story begins in the mid-'80s, after DeGroff left his position bartending at LA's Hotel Bel-Air. He was about to embark on a new project in San Francisco, when the phone rang from New York...
Dale DeGroff: I got a call from a friend that said Joe Baum—who I knew because I'd worked at the ad agency that did his advertising—Joe Baum is opening a fine-dining restaurant, which is called Aurora. You should come back and interview for it. I knew that meant that I had an inside track on the job, because it came through his advertising people. And I got the gig at this fine-dining French restaurant.
Joe asked for a fancy 19th-century classic cocktail program, and he gave me the name of a book, which turned out to be a book that was written in 1862, but he neglected to give me that little tidbit of information. So I went looking for it at bookstores on Fifth Avenue and finally did find a copy of this ancient book, and put together a menu of cocktails from that era.
Front & Center: What was the book?
It ended up being so many books, but the book he wanted me to read was the 1862 original volume of How to Mix Drinks, or the Bon-Vivant's Companion by Jerry Thomas.
But the book I found incredibly helpful, among others, was the Bottoms Up by Ted Saucier. It was a kind of risque book, because [of art by] Vargas, the great depicter of female nudes at the time... Ted Saucier, the writer, went around the world. He was a real bon vivant, and he got recipes from all the great supper clubs in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Singapore, Paris, London. So this was published in 1951, a snapshot of the mid-century cocktail world... And then I used the old Waldorf Astoria Bar Book, which was a snapshot of the hotel just before Prohibition.
I used the Tropical Bar Book by Schumann from Munich. Just published. He was in Cuba, fantastic book.
And you brought those drinks to Aurora...
What it was, was kind of a lab. I found out when Benny Goodman sat at my bar one night and I went over to the wine master, Ray Wellington... I said, "What's going on, Ray? Why's Benny Goodman sitting at my bar waiting for Joe?" And he said, "Oh, it's the Rainbow Room thing." I said, "What Rainbow Room thing?" He said, "You don't know? Where you been? Joe's been working on it for six months and has got another 18 months to go. He's working on the new Rainbow Room on top of Rockefeller Center." I said, "Ohhh." Boy, I'm thinking, now I get it, why I'm making this classic cocktail menu. This was just an experiment for Joe, working towards the bigger project.
Immediately I got it in my mind that I really wanted that job. So I went up to Joe and I said I have an idea for a spectacular menu for the new Rainbow Room. What if we were to do a menu comprised of cocktails that were featured in the great bars, supper clubs in the surrounding neighborhood that might have been in the shadow of the great 30 Rock, you know? The GE Building, or RCA Building, as it was originally called.
What were the opening-night drinks at the Rainbow Room?
Oh my God, the bartenders were ready to kill me. Singapore Sling, Sazerac, Ramos Fizz, Between the Sheets, one massively difficult drink after another.
We had the Hemingway Daiquiri on that original menu, also. That never came off the menu. Singapore Sling never came off the menu. I did the Jack Rose on that menu. Turn of the century, there was a big New York dance-hall chorus line called the Flora Dora Girls. I had the Flora Dora cocktail on my menu. But I had too many drinks, so what happened was [we needed to] reduce the size of the menu in terms of offerings.
So I had to tell Joe that we had to go down from 24 to 16 drinks. Now, this is a menu designed by Milton Glaser and it was massively expensive to print, and we printed thousands of them. And I really thought that was the end of my career. Joe said OK.
The reason I had to switch the menu was because, you know, I thought I was going to start slow and have time... No, no. We were inundated from day one. The bar was five deep. There were lines out the door, lines in the lobby at the elevator to get up to this place. We should have known. It was Joe Baum, the man who opened Windows of the World, The Four Seasons, The Forum of the Twelve Caesars, La Fonda Del Sol...
You must have seen a lot of celebrities.
It was celebrity fatigue.
I mean, you know, there were certain people who sat at the bar, but pretty much everybody was in the Rainbow Room. So I didn't necessarily serve them directly, but, my God, every president in office and out of office, all the show business stuff, all the Rockefeller Center people. And Saturday Night Live people were dashing up there for quick drinks at the bar in between shows. We're in the same building, you know.
But it wasn't so much the cast members, it was the back of the house. The guy who did all the footage around town, he was up all the time. Victoria [Jackson] was a friend of mine, because I met her on the West Coast, so I went down to sit in the show, pop into her dressing room once in a while.
And we had cabaret. It was Vic Damone, it was Rosemary Clooney twice a year, it was young talent, old talent. Bob Hope's wife sang with Rosemary one year because she had never followed her career as a singer, so Rosemary said, "You're singing with me." So she co-starred with Rosemary Clooney.
We had extraordinary talent. We had wonderful musicians. Club dates abounded at the Rainbow Room, because the whole floor below there were club dates for all these union musicians... Plus, we had nightly the big band, the Latin band. The guitar player at my bar every night playing right there with me.
Was there dancing every night back then?
Every single night. All the big swing dance clubs all came. We were open seven days a week, 365 days a year. No, 364 days a year. We closed New Year's Day. You know why? Inventory.
And what was the crowd drinking?
This was the era when the Long Island Iced Tea was still huge, especially because we were getting a lot of Germans, and Germans love the Long Island Iced Tea. Who knew?
Now, a Long Island Iced Tea, you know what it is. It's all the white spirits in the world, including tequila if you're not a purist, and so what we did is we didn't kill customers. The idea was to put half ounce, half ounce, half ounce, half ounce... We did it the right way, so they tasted good. And used fresh lemon juice in there. No one had ever done that before. So they were selling like crazy. What we had to do is the gallon jugs with the exact proportions of all five of those spirits. At the moment of service, [we added] the juices, you know.
So we figured it out, but it took us six months to get good.
Was that an innovation, using fresh juices at the time?
Pretty much everything we were doing was an innovation. We were selling drinks at that bar, the reason it was so busy and why everybody wanted to order off the menu, those drinks hadn't been on menus. Some of them since before Prohibition, some of them since right after Prohibition, the fancy places, but eventually they disappeared.
And when the '60s came along, every bar in America had juices and sodas coming out of a gun. So nobody ordered those kinds of drinks and had fresh lemon and lime juice, because the sour mix, first of all, it didn't even look like juice. It was green. And they made the whiskey sours and the margaritas and the Tom Collins, they made a lot of the same stuff. So they all tasted exactly alike. You couldn't hardly tell a margarita from a whiskey sour, because you're tasting this baggage flavor that came along with the mix.
There wasn't a single soda gun in the Rainbow Room, any of the bars. [People] came to have drinks that their grandparents used to drink and they were just blown away. And the word spread, and then I'm down in the Village going to a cocktail lounge and there's a Between the Sheets on the menu... They didn't just find that.
And not only that, when we opened in 1987, there were no cocktail menus. When I say no, I mean none. No saloon, not even fancy restaurants. No one had—you know where they had cocktails on their menu? At brunch. And that was the only time you saw a drink on the menu... And by the way, we didn't do variations on the classics, like they do today. No way. How can you do a variation on something no one's ever tasted?... It was a spectacular moment for drinkers in New York.
So it was a whole package that you couldn't get anywhere else in the world. Forget New York. Where else would you go and get the kind of food, dishes with tradition... baked Alaska, lobster Thermidor?
So everything really tapped into the retro spirit.
This was a deco palace, Rockefeller Center. And Joe went over the top with that. He hired the guys, the grandchildren of the man who installed the revolving dance floor in the dining room were the ones who restored it. That revolving dance floor hadn't worked for decades. The rollers had been worn down and they didn't work anymore, so they raised the floor and they renewed the old wooden rollers. The crystal balustrades in the dining room, that's real crystal when you go into the dining room today.
The greeters were wearing Philip Morris pillbox caps and the beautiful braids with the copper buttons... I'm wearing an Eisenhower jacket, the captains are in pastel silk tails. The front waiters are in exquisite black tuxedos. The maitre d' is in a black tuxedo with tails. Every area, every part of this operation had a costume. The women who sold the cigarettes at the beginning, or the cigars, and then later on stuffed animals, wearing these incredible French maid costumes. This is Carrie Robbins.
So we had a very formal set of rules. We had a script for the greeters. Joe didn't leave anything to chance. He wanted people to be hospitable. He wanted you to be friendly, but not familiar. Big difference.
And the center of the bar scene was the Rainbow Promenade.
Joe built the bar. It was a snaking bar that... looked south on Manhattan island, so you had not only the Empire State Building and Chrysler Building, but those insurance buildings with the beautiful tops further downtown. The Twin Towers, Statue of Liberty, the harbor. New Jersey never looked so good, out to the west of those windows.
And across from the bar there were banquettes. You think, well, that's the worst place to sit in the world, because everybody in the bar's standing right in front of you. No, because Joe's a genius. So across the bar he built tiers up, so that the people sitting at the banquettes were looking over the tops of the heads of the people at the bar.
He understood that restaurants were not places where you went to eat and drink. They were places where you went to have an experience.
Stay tuned to Front & Center for more on the storied history of the Rainbow Room and its neighbor, Bar SixtyFive. Learn more about Dale DeGroff here, and check out this clip of him making Irish coffee with Rachel Maddow at Rockefeller Center.