Great service has always contained an element of performance. Neil Ridley talks to two very different on-trade venues to find out just how they manage to bring the house down, night after night
The Classic Hotel Bar: The Connaught
Undoubtedly one of the most highly regarded destination bars in London, the Connaught Bar in Mayfair, headed up by the charismatic Agostino 'Ago' Perrone and his team, is having quite a year, winning awards left and right. When it comes to its drinks list, the Connaught Bar has always trodden a perfectly balanced line between inspiration and reinvention of the classics, staying abreast of the most modern trends while simultaneously steering well away from gimmickry.
The skinny: 'When we opened the Connaught Bar I wanted to bring in something new,' remembers Perrone. 'However, I also wanted to keep the classic cocktails that the bar was known for – the Martini and the Bloody Mary. For the Bloody Mary, I reimagined the recipe with homemade spices and a celery foam [also bringing in the lost art of ‘throwing’ the drink between tins to aerate it], but for the Martini, I wanted to keep it classic.
'I discussed the idea [of the Martini trolley] with our bar manager at the time and we agreed that we wanted to be able to personalise the guest experience, and to have the opportunity to interact with them – hence the Martini trolley was born. It took us time to perfect and we decided to keep the trolley itself very simple, without a freezer or anything too technical, and to rely on the skills of the bartender instead.
'We added the various flavours of bitters to allow guests to personalise their drink, and today it's something that people come back for again and again. It’s a great way to bring the theatre of the bar to the guest.
'For me, I want to encourage curiosity in my guests. I love to travel and collect ideas and flavours to bring back to the Connaught Bar and I would like to inspire this love of exploration in our guests.'
We are moving towards a very personal experience for the guest, where they can feel an emotional connection with the drink and the bar
Watch out for: 'The danger is when the theatre takes over from the actual drink itself – style over substance. Historically, barmen would train and work their way up the ranks slowly, learning both technical skills and hosting skills along the way, and this is definitely something I would encourage.'
The future: 'I think we are moving towards a very personal experience for the guest, where they can feel an emotional connection with the drink and the bar. Guests are increasingly sophisticated. They don't want gimmicks; they know exactly what they want – whether that's a taste of adventure, or their favourite drink made precisely as they like it. It’s all about creating something bespoke.'
The Trendsetting Bar/Restaurant: The Shrub & Shutter
The Shrub & Shutter in Brixton has been well and truly on the radar for the self-respecting flavour fanatic since it opened in September 2014. Co-founded by drinks impresarios Chris Edwards and Dave Tregenza, it embraces the trend of smart, simple and, ultimately, beautifully-made drinks with a distinct culinary feel. The ever-changing cocktail menu shares a close relationship with the kitchen and a similar fondness for seasonal ingredients.
The skinny: 'I think the concept of theatre keeps the bartender and the customer excited about the drinks industry,' says Tregenza. 'For the bartender, it’s about showing off new techniques and breaking boundaries. For the customer, it’s about involving senses other than just taste.
'Smell is brought into play with smoke, and with flaming cocktails, obviously with sight. And if the fire alarm goes off (which has happened occasionally at The Shrub), then hearing, too! 'The theatre needs to go to the table, especially in table-service venues. If they can't see it, the customer feels cheated. Having something done at your table gives a personal touch. And it shows skill and care from the floor team. too.'
One of the best parts of theatre is a simple garnish, which can bring a drink together. We are developing more edible garnishes
Watch out for: 'The customer wants their drink quickly. The theatre needs to be smart and simple but still bring "wow" factor. One of the best parts of theatre is a simple garnish, which, when explained, can bring a drink together.'
The future: 'I believe that molecular-style cocktails are still hard to beat at the moment, but I know everyone is trying to take them in different directions. For example, we are developing more edible garnishes and working with the chef a lot more. I think that’s something people haven’t ventured into enough.
'Other people are trying to redefine their molecular status by having labs and bar kitchens in which to do prep, and are even distilling their own spirits.'