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Rainbow Room Is Famous Even if Its Guests Aren’t

Rainbow Room Is Famous Even if Its Guests Aren’t

New York Times 8/10/2008

By Susan Dominus

The illusion of the exclusivity of the Rainbow Room, the storied jewel box of a restaurant on the 65th floor of 30 Rockefeller Center, falls away the moment you pick up the phone and call for a reservation late in the week. Here it was already Thursday, and yet, the reservationist revealed, there was a spot for dinner and dancing for 9:30 that Saturday night. Wait — make that 8 o’clock.

The Rainbow Room offers both dinner and dancing (with two live orchestras) only a few nights a month. So this unexpected ease of access is simultaneously cheering and disheartening, a confirmation of the nightclub’s recent reputation: If the name still connotes high New York glamour, the actual scene on any given night probably does not.

Last week, the Cipriani family, which has run the Rainbow Room since 1999, filed a report requesting landmark status for the space. The request was a funny twist, given the original public fear that the family would defile the nightclub’s cherished history.

When the Ciprianis revealed possible plans to close the Rainbow Room to casual (if formally dressed) diners, reserving it only for private events, critics reacted as if such a move would be an assault on democracy itself. How dare the Ciprianis deprive New Yorkers of their God-given right to pay through the nose for a great view, a steak béarnaise, and the chance to fox-trot around the same dance floor where Ginger Rogers (not to mention all those socialites) once did?

The Ciprianis obviously changed their plans, and these days the restaurant is nothing if not democratic (in a democracy of people who can pay $200 a head). As recently as the ’80s and ’90s, the Rainbow Room drew the same American and European tourists it does today, but also regularly entertained, for dinner, celebrities (Paul McCartney, for example) and high-powered politicians.

Last Saturday night — granted it was high August — a Page Six reporter would have been hard pressed to spot any bold-faced names canoodling or downing any of the menu’s famously classy cocktails. The regulars these days: a doctor and his blue-haired — truly blue, not rinsed blue — artist wife; a teacher who comes down from Boston; the professionals who teach at the Fred Astaire dance school. That man in the light blue bow tie who danced so beautifully with his young daughters — was he a regular from New York? “I think we can gather from his bow tie,” replied a waiter, “that he is not.”

A careful look around the room revealed hints of frayed elegance: The chairs that under previous management were upholstered in leather have been replaced by spindly ones that suggest a suburban country club, and a hand resting on any given table would easily notice the wooden surface below, unshielded by the felt that often adds a bit of invisible luxury to high-end restaurants.

It felt, as one guest commented, rather like a wedding, but one where every couple there fancied themselves the bride and groom. With rare exception, the women were dressed impeccably in black evening wear, many of them in classic ’30s styles — this was a place where guests come to catch a whiff of the past, not to pretend that they’ve gained entree to the moment’s “It” spot.

THE Rainbow Room is still, and will probably always be, a glittering carousel of a nightspot, with that slowly revolving dance floor, those mirrored walls, the city’s bright lights mixing with the red, blue and green spotlights casting unexpected hues on the interior.

“People might come and think, ‘Oh, the magic’s not going to happen,’ ” said Klein Brewer, a captain at the restaurant who has worked there for two decades. “By the end, it’s always happened.”

At a small table by the windows on Saturday night, a young man in a dark suit fiddled with his water glass and waited for his date as other guests danced and ordered. When the young lady, dressed in a floor-length black dress with a deep V neckline, joined him, the two made what seemed to be sporadic small talk and occasionally stared in silence at the dance floor. Finally, they danced, swaying body to body, and when they returned, they sat closer together, his arm wrapped around her back. A dance number came up that he’d clearly requested — Van Morrison’s “Moondance” — and this time he grabbed his date’s hand with determination and pulled her onto the floor.

Soon enough, the music segued into “New York, New York,” that great manifestation of, and tribute to, the city’s affection for unabashed schmaltz, an anthem as obvious and beloved as the Rainbow Room itself. Everyone poured from their tables and onto the floor, so that it was crowded for the first time all evening. And yet suddenly a space cleared right in the center, where that same young man had dropped to one knee.

“Yes,” his date said quietly. On cue, the room provided the appropriate applause, everyone beaming proudly before resuming their private floating reveries.

Despite their youth, despite their life-altering public pact, this couple didn’t consistently draw the eye as the evening wore on. Rather, it was an older couple — the woman had tight blondish curls that may have been in place since the ’40s — who danced with understated ease and a light, almost imperceptible bounce.

They weren’t in it for the showmanship or to recreate the era — they were the era. No one applauded them when they stepped off the floor, but everyone knew they had the kind of goods that last.