Star-Struck Rio

David Belcher - October 2009

Replacing a defunct spa and meeting space, a chic new boîte gives an iconic Rio hotel an energetic boost.

Fred and Ginger danced their first jig here and Ava Gardner trashed her room in a drunken rage, but Rio de Janeiro's most glamorous hotel has entered a new era of celebrity--and some pretty tony ghosts are fronting as cocktails.

The Copacabana Palace, an elegant wedding cake of a hotel on perhaps the world's most famous beach, has opened the Bar do Copa, tucked away like a sexy speakeasy from 1923, the year the beau monde hotel opened and became an instant magnet for the pre-jet international set. This intimate bar, opened in April and packed every night, celebrates the hotel's pedigree with a light tapas menu and cocktails named after its most famous patrons--and some of its most infamous.

After all, Rio wouldn't be Rio without a bit of sexy melodrama with some skin showing. Although the picture of Old World class and elegance--you'll still find gloved bellhops wearing those fabulous hats with chin straps--the Copacabana Palace hotel is situated on a beach not known for its subtlety. And the Bar do Copa mixes the regal charm of the hotel with the raw energy of the city outside its hallowed doors. But the bar's concept--and particularly its cocktail menu--are all about the glittery guests who once walked its halls.

"There's a lot of history at the Copacabana Palace, and we wanted to bring the bar and its excitement back to the hotel by naming drinks after celebrities," explains Heloisa Mader, the hotel's former food and beverage manager who now runs her own consulting firm in São Paulo. Through extensive research, Mader, with the help of her employees, conceived 22 drinks in two months--all priced around $12 to $15.

The Lana Turner frozen cocktail whirs vanilla vodka, cherry, and frozen yogurt like a milk shake, since she was discovered at Schwab's Drugstore. There's the Ava Gardner (vodka, peach nectar, cranberry juice, and sparkling water), named in honor of one of the hotel's most notorious guests. She ripped apart her hotel room in a fury in the '50s (over then-husband Frank Sinatra) and reportedly threw her mattress over the railing of her balcony (she certainly wouldn't be happy that the bar is nonsmoking).

"We also conceived Martinis around the movie Flying Down to Rio," says Mader, referring to the 1934 film set in the hotel that starred Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in their first dancing duo film role. The Ginger Rogers celebrates the Oscar-winning actress' love of gin by mixing Tanqueray No. Ten, apricot brandy, and lemon. "She was simple and classy," says Mader, "I wanted her drink to reflect that."

For the Josephine Baker, a bananas-and-fruit costume from her time in Paris was the inspiration for the dessert-like blend of Mango vodka, mango, banana, and frozen yogurt, prepared more like a smoothie--with an even smoother effect. Even the shape of the glass evokes Baker's slim waist and shapely curves. And the Blood and Sand, inspired by the bullring film starring Rudolph Valentino, one of the hotel's first guests (he died in his prime in 1926), mixes the earthy tone of Johnny Walker Gold Label with the rich hue of cherry brandy, topped with Punt e Mes and orange juice.

Other celebrities who get their due include Brigitte Bardot (Absolut Kurant, cassis, tangerine juice, and sparkling water); Marilyn Monroe, whose drink, the Norma Jean (vodka, cassis, white mint, and frozen yogurt), honors her love of milk; and, of course, Brazil's most fruitful Hollywood export, Carmen Miranda (grappa, banana, and sparkling water).

The hotel's chef, Francesco Carli, has conceived an array of tapas--priced about $14 to $22--to accompany the drink menu. Carli spends most of his time as chef of the hotel's flagship restaurant, The Hotel Cipriani Restaurant, which was named when he came from the hotel of the same name in Venice 14 years ago (both hotels are managed by Orient-Express Hotels). His Cipriani menu is distinctly Italian, as is his tapas menu for the Bar do Copa, but with a twist of the Americas thrown in.

He offers 20 items, which change seasonally. There's bruschetta with a bacalao puree, for example, mixing typical Italian with the dried codfish common to most Latin American countries. There's spicy guacamole with shrimp; foie gras crème brülée with pears; mini burgers of duck, lamb, and beef; crab cakes with a seviche dip; vegetable tempura; and mini Parmesan pastries with artichoke cream. Carli plans to add an Asian angle in the future and to create more tapas to go with the extensive cocktail menu.

Locals are the bar's main clientele, but many of the hotel's guests wander in, particularly on Wednesday and Thursday evenings when the Copa Jam Band assembles to play samba and jazz past midnight (DJs keep things moving on other nights). For these late-night patrons Mader conceived a few shots to keep the party as lively as the city outside, "named for musicians to help people get up and dance": the Mick Jagger (Drambuie and white chocolate), the Chuck Berry (Southern Comfort and Peach Schnapps) and, for a more lofty evening, the Arturo Toscanini (grappa and Frangelico). "The frozen cocktails, like the Katharine Hepburn (passion fruit, Absolut Citron, and frozen yogurt)," Mader elaborates, "are designed to help people cool down at the end of the night."

Occupying a former function room and the hotel's previous fitness center, the Bar do Copa is located just off the hotel's famous swimming pool and was designed by Graham Viney. Part Deco speakeasy and part postmodern nightclub, the room is outfitted with acrylic posts with Art Deco etchings that change color throughout the night. With 17 tables and eight bar stools at an illuminated bar made of jade and creamy marble, it seats up to 100. Black velvet chairs with white trim are centered around cocktail tables that encircle a parquet dance floor and the band area.

And a jet-black rounded ceiling, re-creating Rio's night sky with 10,000 fiber-optic points, depicts all of the Southern Hemisphere constellations. Yes, the Southern Cross is there, in case Northern Hemisphere guests are too dazed--like Ava 50 years ago--to recognize the real thing after a torrid night of cocktails and samba.