In a city swarming with impossibly cute bars and picture-perfect restaurants, it’s no small feat to be known for owning and operating one of the most date-worthy spots in town. But that’s exactly what the team behind The Raines Law Room,The Raines Law Room at the William, The Bennett and Dear Irving have managed to do.
For the past decade, restaurateurs Alberto Benenati and Yves Jadot, along with bartender Meaghan Dorman, have been consistently creating gorgeous spaces where fancy cocktails and fanciful conversation come together harmoniously.
Opened in 2009, The Raines Law Room flagship in Chelsea was a game changer in the New York barscape. At the dimly lit speakeasy, there’s no bar to sidle up to and no crowded bar stools to fight over. Instead, guests are invited into a dignified lounge-like space fitted with plush leather seats guarded by floor-to-ceiling curtains, subtle but suggestive wallpaper by Belgian interior Delphine Mauroit, and call buttons guests can use to discreetly alert a cocktail server.
Despite what now seems like an obvious formula for the best drinks date in town, that superlative wasn’t necessarily the original goal.
“We had two things in mind—conversation and a mature environment—so the combination naturally lent itself to dates,” says Dorman. “We realized we were on to something when The Raines Law Room had been open for a couple of years and someone came back to propose because it’s where they’d had their first date. This happened many more times, and we said, ‘Oh, my God, this is magic.’”
But like any project that seems to just come together magically, The Raines Law Room saw its own unique set of challenges from the beginning. “One of the initial challenges was how to bring people into a space that’s not visible from the street level,” says Jadot. “We were working with a very small budget and could not afford a PR firm. Instead, we focused on picking the right investors who could bring value to our brand and our establishment; they were all from very different backgrounds, and they all had a big network. This is how we were able to create the initial buzz around The Raines Law Room.”
By the time the bar opened, the cocktail revolution had reached full swing. Dorman, who’d studied up on classics with Sam Ross and Mickey McIlroy at the storied Milk & Honey, wanted to preserve the ethos of balanced classics done right, without succumbing to fads.
“We have had to resist the pressure to make more trendy drinks, to do things like have promotions or DJ nights to get business when its quiet,” says Dorman. “We realized that our regular guests appreciate that the environment and cocktails are always consistent.”
While the intricate cocktail menu, buttoned-up attire of the bartenders, and overall glamour of the space might elsewhere evoke the idea of stuffiness, Dorman says the opposite is true at The Raines Law Room, where the formality is actually a matter of comfort.
“The trend in bars now is loud music, T-shirts and really great cocktails,” she says. “I think that’s awesome on my own personal time, but we wanted people to feel good going to a bar dressed up. If you’re coming from Eleven Madison Park or the opera, do you want to be served by someone wearing a T-shirt?”
Comfort, for all patrons, is also emphasized in the bar’s unprecedentedly fluid environment, which feels more like an elegant house party, one where you can move from living room to kitchen and chat casually with hosts as they prepare drinks.
Dorman believes that welcoming spirit, along with consistency and quality cocktails, make up the three keys to the bar’s timeless appeal. “We opened in 2009, as cocktail bars were getting a bad reputation for ego behind the bar and coldness at the door,” she says. “While we have a small space and often have a wait, we always want everyone to feel welcome.”
The lessons learned and successes found at the original Raines Law Room inform the spirit of the trio’s three subsequent bars, which all together were spotlighted in a 2016 “New York Times” feature naming them as “four Manhattan bars that set the mood for romance.” In 2014, Benenati, Dorman and Jadot opened Dear Irving, a time-traveling journey of a bar with separate rooms ornately decorated in the spirit of “The Great Gatsby” and Marie Antoinette, followed shortly by an outpost of The Raines Law Room at The William hotel. Finally, their Tribeca stunner, The Bennett, opened its doors in 2015.
“We definitely wanted to have a little shared DNA in each location, where you have this familiar feeling, with details like the call buttons that you know you’ve seen somewhere else,” says Dorman. At the same time, the trio made sure to observe the nuances of each bar’s location with individual touches. For example, The Raines Law Room at The William offers a Make Your Own Old Fashioned option that Dorman says “was designed to help build regulars in a more transient and professional neighborhood,” along with seats at the bar catering to “solo postwork drinkers stopping in.”
To maintain their high standards, Dorman says each member of the team plays to their strengths—Jadot in negotiating the leases and equipment purchases, Benenati overseeing the bar aesthetic and branding and Dorman leading the creation of drinks and training of staff.
“It’s definitely not always easy, but we all bring something valuable to the table, and that’s the secret of our successful partnership,” says Jadot, adding that each member of the team must be able to rely on the others. “You could be an amazing bartender, but that doesn’t automatically mean you’re a great entrepreneur. If the business part is not your strength, then partner with someone that knows the business part of it.”
Nearly 10 years since the opening of The Raines Law Room, Dorman and the team have maintained their relevance and staying power in New York’s rapidly evolving bar scene. “It’s essential to have a strong concept and philosophy behind a menu, but you have to be open to feedback from guests,” she says. “You have to be able to look at what’s working and be willing to make adjustments.”
Luckily for fans of these bars, this team is not going anywhere soon. Word on the street is that they’re working on an upcoming rooftop concept. And if the first four bars are any indication, it will likely be one to add to your list of date-night destinations.