Whirlpool at Kenmare

kenmore rev6 layers Whirlpool at KenmareOh, hon, you look so cold,” Megan Ronney told The Observer outside of Kenmare, where she works the notoriously tight door. We offered a quick nod—we were cold, and so were the 10 others forced to brave the wind instead of the endless line of drinks and glamorous patrons that surely lay beneath this Nolita restaurant that night.

But unlike the other chilly men and women outside Kenmare, The Observer had stepped out for a cigarette, and in three drags’ time we would open the doors, bypass the hangers-on at the trifling second-tier bar and with a nod descend the silver-lined stairwell into the mass of fur and sharp jaw lines below.

We had come up to talk to Ms. Ronney, tall in a puffy jacket, with a knit ski cap barely hiding a shock of blond beneath. She and the rest of the staff have been at Kenmare nearly a year. The opening during last February’s Fashion Week was pretty smash-and-bang. It’s still being decided whether this year’s festivities will end up at Kenmare, but owner Nur Khan says it will be as big as 12 months ago.

“Everyone will wind up there anyway if I happen to have one or not,” he said in a text to The Observer Monday.

Judging by last Saturday, this is no empty boast. Mr. Khan, who owns the bar with Paul Sevigny, arrived with photographer Sante D’Orazio, famed for filling his exhibitions with big pictures of gorgeous women naked and, say, rolling in a blob of silk. It was Mr. D’Orazio’s birthday and the crew took over a back room, a guard in front waiting for the nod from Mr. Khan if someone wanted to enter. We took our French 75—gin and lemon juice shaken, slid into a flute and topped generously with Champagne—to the little exclusive party, and he introduced the others sitting around as “family.”

Then we left that corner room. At Kenmare you move in circles, bending around the center pillars, and it’s like a whirlpool, dizzying at times, with centrifugal force pulling you into one of the adjoining “caverns”—the staff’s official term—that line the right side of the room, and then it spits you out again. The sloped walls and roofs of these caverns operate so that there’s ample protection to get away with, well, anything. And for that reason they are in fact nothing like the church catacombs that they resemble.

We waited until near 4 in the morning, the party at full thrust, to talk to the unwithered smattering of those having too much fun to brave the cold in skinny dresses.

What is it with this place, Kenmare?

“You can be among your friends,” a boy who works in fashion said over the Hot Chip. “A lot of fashion is here, a lot of entertainment is here—a lot of a lot is here. It feels like home.”

His friend, also in fashion, agreed.

“Every time I come here is a fucking blast, man,” said a man who works for something called the Sartorial Collective. “New York is dying, and this is a place that’s still alive.”

“It’s French,” said a boy in from France.

“I run into the people I know,” said a woman who was liberal with the eyeliner. “It’s all the same circle, the same places we’re going, like, from Boom Boom to Kenmare.”

“I like Boom Boom better,” said her friend.

“It’s artistic, underground,” said a girl standing in a booth with DJ Todd Smolar.

And then when it got sufficiently late, with the Rolling Stones still blasting and that whiplash-inducing floor still flinging dancing bodies from one cavern to the next, or some other force herding the kids to the anything-goes bathroom stalls made up like black mirror boxes, we retrieved our coats and my friend picked up his records (he’d been by Dope Jams earlier that day, and when he checked the vinyl, no one gave pause).

The last girl we talked to sat perched on a ledge in the tunnel that leads to the dug-out coat check. She was thin and clutching her knees and claimed to be a native New Yorker.

“I’ve had my days when I liked it, and I’ve had my days when I hated it,” she said of Kenmare. “I hated the pretentiousness. A lot of people come here to act like they’re cool kids because they got in—‘Omigod, I got in, look at me, I’m a cool kid.’ But it’s so fake. I’m used to the real kids.”

Then she paused to take a drink under that carved-out window that peers into one of the caverns, full of people doing whatever they wanted to do.

“But not always,” she added. “There are times when I come here, and it seems really cool.”

nfreeman@observer.com