All you really have to know about the bar at the Ritz-Carlton Huntington Hotel in Pasadena is that you can order a glass of vintage Armagnac.
Sure, it's $25, and most of what I know about Armagnac I learned on an old episode of "The Sopranos." I'm no connoisseur, but I just have to appreciate a place that assumes its patrons sip French brandy because it tastes good and not because it looks good in front of the posse.
That's the beautiful thing about a hotel bar. Pick the right one, and you get the anti-scene, an atmosphere so precariously balanced on the edge of dull, it's blissful. There's a difference between dead and sedate: One sucks the life out of the room, the other breathes life back into the dead.
As a paycheck-earning zombie, I rely on places like the Ritz. Having a uniformed waiter deliver an elegant glass of Pinot Noir and a generous bowl of warm, roasted nuts is like having someone pat you on the head and tell you life is going to be OK.
Like all good therapy, you have to accept the premise for it to work. I know that for the duration of my $18 glass of wine, I exist in travel time, a suspension of responsibility, a pleasant dislocation from the anchors of adulthood. Unlike the arriving businessmen and pleasure-seeking tourists, the hotel is my instant oasis. I'm immediately oriented and confident of the outcome of my evening because, unlike the travelers, the hotel bar is my destination. The city and its "excitement" are exactly what I'm avoiding.
Still, I borrow a little of the foreign air that wafts along with the travelers -- it helps to create a sense of distance. They have crossed oceans and continents to see this "foreign" city, and the rush of their excited conversations creates a pleasant soundtrack to my passive travelogue.
My partner and I will play a game of "name that tune" as the pianist liberally rearranges rock songs. We'll maybe interrupt inertia long enough to walk around the huge room and marvel at the privacy-assured distance between groups of chairs.
We'll wander to the patio to gaze along a line of palm trees, their silhouettes uniform against the jagged mountains. We can picture the generations of travelers who have traded stories and shared cocktails and celebrations on the vast lawn. We abandon our couch-centered sloth to drift with the nighttime breeze, across the quiet sidewalks and among the moon's shadows.
Back inside, the bar seems less a bar than a grand ballroom where everyone is invited. Despite the apparent snob appeal of a place like the Ritz, there's something democratic about such over-upholstered, stately settings. You don't have to be young or fabulous to enter. You don't have to "be" anything, other than appreciative of the surroundings. When I look around, I see a room full of multiple generations. It's quite possibly the only place where a punker kid with blue hair and his blueblood, blue-hair granny could meet on common ground.
All I know is that when I'm 80 -- and I'm counting on my red wine to get me there -- I hope I can still appreciate a good Armagnac, whatever it is.
Where: The Ritz-Carlton Huntington Hotel & Spa, 1401 S. Oak Knoll Ave., Pasadena
When: 4 p.m. to midnight Mondays through Thursdays, until 2 a.m. Fridays; 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. to midnight Sundays
Cost: Cocktails $7.75 to $12, wine by the glass $7 to $24
Info: (626) 568-3900