'I've got an idea...': The best bar concepts

Laura Foster

Laura Foster

01 July 2016

From Wild West cat houses to Michelin-starred restaurant-alikes, there are some astonishing bar concepts out there. Laura Foster lifts the lid on a world of claw machines, ‘Can-hattans’ and 300-year-old oak trees

Black Rock, London

Fluid Movement’s Thomas Aske and Tristan Stephenson are dragging whisky bars firmly into the future with this tiny, dimly lit basement shrine to uisge beatha, located on the outskirts of London’s Shoreditch.

‘We believe that whisky is going through a transitional period at the moment, with a consumer demographic change that sees a new, more experimental whisky drinker emerging,’ says Aske. ‘We want to provide them with the perfect platform, by removing barriers such as price and regionality and replacing them with simplification and fun.’

The magnificent centrepiece to the room is a huge, three-ton table made out of an oak tree. Two channels run within the table; one lined with American oak, the other European, and each filled with a different whisky – or whisky drink – that can be drawn off from taps at the end.

‘It is a piece of art, [as well as] the centrepiece,’ explains Aske. ‘Every guest that joins us has questions about the oak tree. Visualising an oak tree with whisky inside is a great way to introduce them to the process and effects of whisky ageing, while allowing them to experience first hand the changes that can take place through the influence of wood.’

Black Rock, 9 Christopher Street, London, EC2A 2BS; blackrock.bar

Hoot the Redeemer, Edinburgh

Hoot The Redeemer’s concept is a funfair for big kids. ‘Imagine the film Big mashed up with an old-fashioned funfair and a hint of New Orleans,’ says owner Iain McPherson.

We want customers to be fearless and excited when ordering their cocktail, not shy

Iain McPherson

Flying in the face of an industry that has mainly taken itself very seriously for the past decade, Hoot features the sort of things that would get anyone excited: a fortune-teller’s door, a Punch and Judy DJ booth, a boozy ice cream vending machine called Señor-Scoop (McPherson even did a nutritional science ice cream course at the University of Reading to help him set this up), and the pièce de résistance, the Pinch ‘n’ Sip.

‘The Pinch ‘n’ Sip is our claw crane machine,’ explains McPherson. ‘We wanted our customers to be fearless and excited when ordering their cocktail, not shy and ordering blind.

‘The machine has a specific flavour in each ball. You play for the flavour you want, bring it to the bar, and we begin this great bartender-to-customer conversation about what base spirit they want; over ice or straight up; bitter, sweet, sour or a bit of everything? We are tailoring the drink to the customer’s taste.’

To help you make the most of your visit, Hoot has games masters on the floor to show you around. ‘There are a lot of hidden surprises, which I won’t give away as I don’t want to ruin the experience,’ declares McPherson. ‘One thing I would say is when you come to the bar try to find the boxing glove…’

And as if all that isn’t enough, there’s also a ceiling mural by a Scottish artist called Conzo Throb. Need we say more?

Hoot the Redeemer, 7 Hanover Street, Edinburgh, EH2 1DJ; hoottheredeemer.com

Maggie Choo's, Bangkok

From the mind of Ashley Sutton, a freelance bar designer working in South-East Asia, came this opulent bar set in 1930s Shanghai. It was inspired by Maggie Choo, who ‘established a trade in girls from China and Vietnam in the early 50s’, explains Sutton. ‘I played on this and created her noodle shop at the entrance [to the bar].’

Located in the basement of a Novotel hotel, guests first enter through the noodle restaurant – with an umbrella ceiling installation – before being ushered through a black curtain into a much larger room lined with vault doors, complete with swings and a bar that’s similar in design to an old-fashioned bank teller’s station.

‘I hear it’s changed since I sold it, but when I owned it I had a lot of Far East aromas and an early Asian feel with some western influences,’ says Sutton. There were cabaret nights, too, but the hotel now runs jazz nights instead. So how did he get the concept past a big hotel group like Novotel? ‘I didn’t tell them what I was doing,’ he says.

In case you’re still in any doubt about Sutton’s mad creative genius, he has just designed Piston Head Mess Hall in Bangkok, which he describes as ‘a long mess hall on an intergalactic space train that travels through space on mining exploration and research. It seats a crew of 70 and has 11 moving pistons positioned along a 25-metre dining table’. Right…

Maggie Choo’s, 320 Silom Road, Bangrak, Bangkok, Thailand; facebook.com/maggiechoos

The Aviary, Chicago

Bars are moving ever-closer to restaurant-style operations when it comes to service set-up and prep. Arguably, one of the key venues that precipitated this move was The Aviary, where drinks are made in a kitchen behind the scenes before being brought out to customers’ tables.

The kitchen has a number of different stations, each dedicated to making certain drinks, as well as a custom-built pass and an intricate ice programme, making The Aviary’s facilities more reminiscent of a cutting-edge Michelin-starred restaurant than a bar.

‘We wanted to streamline the process to get drinks in customers’ hands in under five minutes. Our ticket times are, on average, three to four minutes,’ explains beverage director Micah Melton.

‘We don’t have a traditional walk-up bar at The Aviary. It takes a lot of the distraction out of “bartending” and lets the people making our drinks really focus on speed, consistency and efficiency. There’s no taking payments, striking up conversations, or running to grab random bottles for “dealer’s choice”.

‘It also allows us to push the limits and present drinks more intricately, in a more involved and unique way. While we are very non-traditional, the heart of what we do is hospitality, and based around flavour and classic cocktail infrastructure.’

The team behind The Aviary are set to open two new sites, so watch this space…

The Aviary, 955 West Fulton Market, Chicago, Illinois 60607, USA; theaviary.com

Continental Deli Bar Bistro, Sydney

For a magazine that loves puns, Continental is right up our street. This bar and deli boasts its own on-site canning machine – which it fills with homemade food and cocktails – and its slogan screams ‘Yes we can’.

‘The Continental Deli in Newtown, Sydney, is what it sounds like – your everyday local deli where you can pick up your cured meats, cheese and sardines, but with a little more going on, [including] a bar and a cannery,’ says manager Michael Nicolian. ‘We try to create a little piece of Europe here.’

The machine was sourced locally, and sits in the back of the building. ‘We initially wanted to have it on display, but it’s about the size of me, so would have taken up too much room,’ explains Nicolian. ‘It’s pretty special. The work that’s gone into the labels, recipes and just getting everything done is massive. We can-up your everyday items, such as our baked beans and creamed corn and mushrooms, but we also do the Martini and Manhattans (Mar-tinny and Can-hattans). We’re hoping to add the Cosmopoli-tin to the range soon.’

The light, airy, marble-filled deli has become a hit with the locals: ‘I think if you dream of opening a bar and when you finally do it’s lined with people drinking Martinis, it pretty much fulfils that dream,’ enthuses Nicolian. ‘We didn’t know what to expect from people with regard to the tinned fish side of things – but it’s been really well received.’

Continental Deli Bar Bistro, 210 Australia Street, Newtown, NSW 2042, Australia; continentaldelicatessen.com.au

Five more uber concepts

1 The Iron Fairies, Bangkok
Another bar from the mind of Ashley Sutton, the original incarnation was a blacksmith workshop by day and a bar by night. ‘It was like stepping into a bar that’s located somewhere in the corner of Salvador Dalí’s mind,’ recalls James Estes, Ocho brand ambassador in UAE. ‘There are high ceilings, multi-levels of steel pillars and hundreds of fairy figurines adorning the walls.’ facebook.com/ironfairiesbkk  

2 The Lucky Liquor Co, Edinburgh

Going against the trend of stocking huge back bars, Lucky Liquor Co stocks only 13 spirits at any one time, from which it creates 13 cocktails. ‘The idea of limiting the back bar to 13 spirits is really interesting,’ says Julian de Féral from Gorgeous Group. ‘It looks really cool, too; it’s a blank wall with a little rainbow in the middle.’ luckyliquorco.com

3 No Vacancy, LA
‘It’s almost like a Wild West-style cat house/saloon. You’re ushered into a room where the lady of the house welcomes you and explains the rules,’ says Little Bat’s Barney Toy. ‘She said to me: “Welcome to No Vacancy, where the only rule is that you leave the same way you came in.” Then she flicked a switch and the bed she was on moved to reveal a staircase leading down to the bar. There’s a lot of whiskey, a burlesque show… it gets pretty crazy.’ novacancyla.com

4 PimpShuei, London
‘Bar owner Sipheng You has created a whole bar around his love of martial arts flicks and video games,’ says Gorgeous Group’s Julian de Féral. ‘He makes his own lamps out of Chinese takeaway boxes and runs gaming nights – with all of the cash from the arcade machines going to charity.’ pimpshuei.co.uk

5 PS40, Sydney
There’s a lot of noise about this new bar down under. ‘This bar has just opened with its own on-site bottling line and pasteurisation machine, so that the team can make and sell their own sodas,’ says Lee Potter Cavanagh of Akiba. In a town where licensing laws are increasingly prohibitive, this is a clever step. facebook.com/PS40bar

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