A glittering skyline adds glamor to alfresco dining and drinking at 230 Fifth Avenue in New York City.
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Above It All

Michael Whiteman - December 2008

Bracing air and bracing Martinis, glittering views, a sense of superiority, perchance even a smoke—these elements are converging to fuel a trend toward drinking and dining en plein air atop skyscrapers.

Speaking of looking down on the neighbors…what's with this rooftop business? Suddenly, hotels and office towers around the world are sprouting exuberant and sexy lounges, bars, and restaurants on what urbanites derisively used to call "tar beach."

You'll find top-of-building extravaganzas in San Diego, New York City, Atlanta, São Paolo, and Los Angeles, but also in ultrasteamy places like Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, and Mumbai, where common sense suggests you do your heavy drinking indoors.

But ultraviolet rays, global warming, and smog be damned, thousands of people around the globe are headed for the heights, hoping to get away from it all by climbing above it all.

For building owners, turning these unused tar beaches into high-profile businesses represents the final frontier in squeezing revenue from every inch of space. After all, they generate high-volume sales from extremely low product and labor costs, since the ratio of food to beverage is highly skewed toward beverage—and no HVAC to pay for!

Perhaps the most spectacular rooftop extravaganza is Sirocco and its Sky Bar in Bangkok. Part of a bar-lounge-dining complex called The Dome, it claims to be the world's highest alfresco f&b venue. Perched on the 63rd floor of an office tower, the 100 capacity bar itself protrudes beyond the building's exterior wall—so while it's not as fearsome as tippling on a diving board, drinking there is not for the faint of heart. Sirocco is an adjacent 200 seat outdoor restaurant serving (what else?) Mediterranean food, and there are also indoor dining, drinking, and banqueting spaces.

Almost as glamorous is Vertigo Grill & Moon Bar, also in Bangkok, on the 61st floor of the Banyan Tree hotel. It, too, claims to be the Asia Pacific's highest open-air restaurant on what formerly was a helicopter landing pad.

In New York City, there's one atop an otherwise anonymous 20 story office tower at 230 Fifth Avenue, just south of the Empire State Building. Its 14,000 square feet sprawls with pergolas, plantings, lounge chairs, and multiple bars; it can hold 1,200 on-the-make drinkers, and between 2,000 and 3,000 people pile in on a good evening. There's also an 8,000-square-foot interior space just below, and private parties are really big business: they've hosted more than 800 events in the two years they've been open. A bit farther uptown, the Peninsula Hotel has just redesigned its rooftop bar and two outdoor lounges that seemed spectacular enough last year, turning the newly themed "Shanghai deco" spaces into Salon de Ning—and business has increased 25 percent since reopening. It has sexy capacious Chinese daybeds and an assemblage of global tchotchkes. A Mimosa or limoncello/Prosecco cocktail will set you back $24, a Martini is $22, and a crab/avocado maki roll goes for $45, but you can watch sunsets over the city knowing you'll never encounter a tourist in Bermuda shorts. Also you can rent the place for 250 of your closest friends. Similar salons are opening in Hong Kong and Shanghai.

At Richard Branson's Roof Gardens in London, patrons find themselves sharing one and a half acres with preening flamingos and ducks paddling in ponds. The place has three themed gardens accommodating 500 people and is used largely for private events but is open to the public.

In Kuala Lumpur there's the Luna Bar, a two-level affair atop the Pacific Regency Tower. It has a pool deck, futons for lounging, and spectacular views of the twin Petronas Towers, which for a while were the world's largest buildings. An upper deck holds a small bar from which revelers can view both the city around them and the cleavage around the pool below.

What's behind all this new reaching-for-the-skies? In truth, rooftop restaurants, especially atop posh hotels, were rather fashionable in New York City around the 1900s, including the Astor's Belvedere, that had a rose garden, a palm garden, a quarter-mile promenade, and room for 5,000 guests. Quite probably they were killed off by the city's accumulating grime and, more importantly, by central air conditioning—both making indoors a better year-round solution all over the world.

Today conditions are quite the opposite—for a number of good reasons: The air feels cleaner in many cities than it did just two decades ago; and since smoking is prohibited almost everywhere, rooftops are havens for the nicotine-addicted; and since most of us spend our days and nights cloistered in air-cooled, insulated offices and houses, getting into the outdoors with a stiff Martini equates to a high form of escapism.

What's more, the higher you go, psychologically, the higher your status, so looking down on the neighbors assumes genuine social importance.

Some rooftop bars maximize profits by emulating late-night club life by selling booze by the bottle, along with setups, for a crowd around a table. Altitude, a 217 seater atop the Marriott in San Diego's Gaslamp district, for example, charges $250 to $325 for a bottle of vodka and $295 to $425 for a bottle of Tequila. For that, customers get plush seating, two bars, a DJ, a lava rock fire pit, and a view of the Padres' ballpark and the surrounding town.

Because they're outdoors, a number of rooftop bars offer expensive cigars as part of their business plans. Many hotels include swimming pools as well (The Standard in Los Angeles, The Gansevoort in New York City, Spire in Miami, The Colonnade in Boston, Habita Hotel in Mexico City, Hotel Majestic in Barcelona) rounding out the social scene and, at the same time, making more efficient use of scarce real estate by removing the pools' footprints from the buildings' sites.

The Dome Terrace Sky Bar atop the InterContinental Hotel in Mumbai offers views of the Indian Ocean and the city's glittering shoreline. It's tented over during the monsoon season, but as soon as the rain stops, the place is crammed with tourists and strivers from the nearby financial district. In addition to its heated pool, The Standard Hotel has vibrating waterbeds and a DJ.

Finally, there's this height of absurdity: A company in Brussels attaches a dining platform to a crane that will hoist you and 21 other intrepid companions 150 feet into the air for the ultimate alfresco feast. The cost? If you have to ask….