Nightjar has been one of the top bars in the world ever since it opened five years ago, and now Edmund Weil and team are ready for their much-anticipated second London venue. Alice Lascelles finds out what we can expect when Oriole opens its doors in November
When the director of Nightjar, Edmund Weil, first set eyes on the mouldering London pub that was eventually to become the site for his new venture, it was love at first sight.
‘It was horrific!’ he cries with obvious glee. ‘But that’s what we liked about it, because that meant it was a blank canvas – once you’d brushed the cobwebs off it.’
More than a year later, all the cobwebs – and the asbestos – are gone, and the pub formerly known as The Cock Tavern, Smithfield, is readying itself to take flight as Oriole, a cocktail bar marrying lashings of old-world glamour with a high-spec fit-out worthy of a Michelin-starred kitchen.
‘We wanted to do something exotic,’ says Weil. ‘It has elements of tiki, but I definitely wouldn’t call it a tiki bar. It’s more about geographical travel and exploration, the collection of new ingredients and experiences. And we love vintage, so it will have a vintage feel, drawing on all the good things about famous colonial bars like Raffles and the Pegu Club.’
Tucked away under London’s famous Smithfield meat market, Oriole promises to offer the same sense of discovery that Nightjar brought to Old Street’s grubby Silicon Roundabout, but on a much grander scale, with seating for 120 (rather than 75), and a bar designed to give more guests a front-row seat on the action.
‘The layout will be like a classic 1940s nightclub with beautiful fittings. We’ve had a really good time trawling auction rooms,’ says Weil, singling out a fearsome Polynesian throwing club and a pair of African masks as favourite finds.
The man masterminding the drinks is Italian bartender Luca Cinalli, a graduate of Mahiki and Kanaloa who has been part of Marian Beke’s team at Nightjar since day one. He’ll remain quiet about the final drinks list until November, but the little he will share shows it’s set to have all the ambition, and ravishing presentation, that’s seen Nightjar make top three at the World’s 50 Best Bars for the last three years.
‘The menu is going to have 30 drinks, plus some sharing drinks, divided into three themes: New World, Old World and Oriental,’ says Cinalli, before talking me through the Ryōan-Ji [see box], which combines Japanese whisky and a reduction of milk coloured with blue rose petals, served over an iced rambutan in an antique ceramic egg basket from the Far East.
An example from the New World, meanwhile, uses bourbon, a ‘tea’ of artichoke, hay and mushroom inspired by the diet of the buffalo, served with a mustard-laced buffalo milk foam and a white chocolate rim. Oh, and it’s served in a buffalo horn.
It comes as no surprise to learn that one of the biggest challenges Cinalli faced was designing a bar set-up that would enable the team to deliver such labour-intensive drinks at speed, and in a much greater volume than they’d ever done at Nightjar. ‘So we spent time visiting working kitchens to research how they do it,’ says Cinalli.
The result is a bar with considerably more space than Nightjar, comprising two workstations complete with prep surface, three-drawer fridge for mixers and garnishes, and two freezers (plus, if Cinalli gets his way, a walk-in freezer).
The back bar, meanwhile, works like an island with open-backed shelves giving out onto a restaurant-style prep area, with a further dispense station and a dedicated space where barbacks can busy themselves juicing, prepping and polishing glasses.
At Nightjar I learned that if you make the investment at the beginning you will save yourself thousands of pounds in the future
‘This is a costly project,’ acknowledges Weil, ‘but something I learned when doing Nightjar was that if you make the investment at the beginning you will save yourself thousands of pounds in the future. For example, at Nightjar space constraints meant that we could only have one cubed ice machine, which means we are now spending £10,000 a year extra on buyingin extra ice, which is crazy.’
The rest of the team have had a lot of input into Oriole, too. ‘As a bartender you can lose sight of the problems faced by floor service,’ says Cinalli, ‘so from day one I sat down with the waitresses and the floor manager to discuss the best way of designing things like the pass, the customer seats and the lighting, too.’
Time and again, the Oriole staff stress the importance of good communication within a team where floor managers can end up being as well-versed in the creation of the drinks as the bartenders themselves.
‘There’s often a divide between the floor and bar, and we wanted to encourage a good understanding of what everybody does,’ says Weil. ‘And we invite feedback from everybody – in fact, our security guard Dave prompted us to put a gimlet on the list after he told someone in the queue that it was his favourite drink and then everyone started ordering them that night.’
Training is also a high priority, says general manager Ivana Popovic. Everyone on the team regularly takes part in tastings, training sessions and trips aimed at building product knowledge and enthusiasm for the drinks on the menu.
‘And we give them daily tests, whether that’s drawing a card from [Nightjar’s cocktail playing cards] and reciting the recipe from memory, or playing Fred Sirieix’s Art of Service game, which we often update with scenarios or questions that have arisen for us in real life.’
‘We also give lots of awards and prizes,’ she adds, ‘so it makes it fun, rather than a test everyone dreads.’
And it seems to work. Today, Nightjar still has seven of its original staff including Martina Breznanova, a former Nightjar barback and now one of London’s hottest bartending talents. ‘I cannot stress enough the importance of having people with a sense of pride and passion in their work,’ says Popovic. ‘That way they all get a real sense of ownership in what they do.’
Caring and sharing
Speaking as a journalist who has often found myself on deadline desperately trying to find a bar that can supply good-looking photographs of their drinks or a helpful quote for an article, I can also say that PR and marketing is something that the team behind Nightjar and Oriole do very, very well. You can always count on them to come up with the goods.
So it’s no surprise to learn that Weil and his wife and business partner Roisin Stimpson both spent time working in marketing and PR – Weil at Freud Communications (before leaving to teach English in some of London’s most challenging schools) and Stimpson in fashion PR and at Christie’s – before they started out in the bar business.
‘We did all the marketing and PR for ourselves for a long time,’ says Weil. ‘And then I met a guy who was just setting up a media agency called JCMT, and they now do everything from creative production – photography, filming – to advising us on how to manage our social media presence.’
And social media is now a key part of the company’s strategy. ‘JCMT has helped us do things like set up a social media calendar, so that we post at the right time and don’t over-post, maintain the consistency on each platform, and play to the strengths of different channels like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.’
‘They’ve helped us with spending money in the right ways,’ he continues. ‘For example, just spending £50 a month with Facebook has seen our likes jump from 50 up to 200 per week. And as a result everything, including engagement, shares and reach, has increased. They also help us adapt to how the social media environment is changing. Last year it was about photo content and now Facebook is competing with platforms like YouTube; it’s much more about video content.’
All at Oriole are also excited to be collaborating on a top-secret menu format with Drinksology, the company behind the covetable (and award-winning) illustrated menu at New York’s Dead Rabbit.
‘We want to do something for the Oriole menu that has the same collectability of the playing cards at Nightjar, which goes beyond the menu and gives people a feeling of romance,’ says Weil.
But isn’t this all insanely expensive?
‘Sometimes the touches look more expensive than they are,’ says Weil, explaining how the chocolate spoon that comes with every Nightjar Cobbler is just a way to use up leftover chocolate fondue – the result costs mere ‘single digit pence’.
‘Working with suppliers is also very important,’ Weil adds. ‘From big drinks companies to our local Taj Stores round the corner, the veg market trader, or getting the right support arrangements with drinks brands to make an idea come to life.’
They’ve also just spent two years developing a spreadsheet that now allows them to cost up every drink from an individual cola nut to the finished object. ‘Everything needs to be gone through with a fine-tooth comb,’ says Weil. ‘And I do a lot of things myself. I can do basic electrics, plumbing. By doing things yourself you can save thousands of pounds.’
For Weil, knowing where to spend the money is what counts. Nightjar, for instance, offers a free glass of prosecco to any guest who has to wait over 15 minutes for a cocktail (their target is six to eight minutes, even on a busy night). ‘It’s doesn’t cost us very much, but it can completely turn around a customer’s perception,’ says Weil.
The high-spend, high-impact model is, he admits, dangerous. ‘If we’re full we make a good profit, but to be full most of the time we have to offer something that’s better than anyone else, so it’s a self-perpetuating thing. It’s about quality over quantity, and longevity rather than packing them in for three years until they get tired of it.’
For Weil, ultimately, the key is about ‘creating experiences’.
‘Maybe 15 to 20 years ago people traded more in status symbols like cars and handbags, but now, with social media,
the currency is much more in experiences – look where I am now, what I’m doing, what I’m drinking, who I’m with.
‘For better or for worse, you want to give people that currency, and that’s what a great bar can do.’
One from the list
A sneak preview of an Oriole cocktail
‘The Ryōan-Ji is named after one of the finest surviving Zen Gardens in Japan,’ says Luca Cinalli. ‘The garden is located near Kyoto in a monastery of the same name. Its design is said to be a purely abstract composition whose function is only to incite meditation. The drink is similarly simple and delicate, featuring Japanese whisky, homemade blue rose milk, rambutan, and a seaweed syrup.’
Oriole opens mid-November. East Poultry Avenue, London, EC1A 9LH. Phone and website yet to be confirmed.
Photos by Stephen Perry. Above, L-R: Gabriele Manfredi, Edmund Weil, Tamara Zelonkova, Roisin Stimpson, Ivana Popovic, Enza de Luca, Luca Cinalli.