Phin Foster meets two men reinvigorating hotel cocktail culture; Robbie Bargh and the Hemingway Bar’s Colin Field.
Once upon a time, for a sophisticated drink you visited a hotel bar. Cocktail culture carried a mystique, glamour and exclusivity; the promise of elegantly wasted matinee idols and tuxedoed secret agents.
Then, some 15 years ago, things started to change. The opening of a raft of sleeker, sexier standalone cocktail houses brought mixology to a new audience.
The hospitality industry, seeing its monopoly on star barmen and landmark destinations slipping away, was forced to raise its game. It also woke up to the potential earnings this expanding market could generate and has since worked hard to attract a new, younger clientele.
For Robbie Bargh, founder and director of Gorgeous Group, which advises bars, restaurants and hotels on concepts, design, operations, recruitment and training, this is as it should be. "Hotels have the best sites, budgets and resources at their disposal. They should lead trends rather than follow them."
This is easier said than done. Bargh has seen many ventures undermined by interference from industry outsiders. "They're being designed by geography teachers, not bar lovers. Designers come in with no idea of how a bar should look or function."
The head bartender at the Hemingway Bar at the Paris Ritz and, according to Forbes magazine, 'the best bartender on Earth', Colin Field believes that functionality too often loses out to fashion. "A few years ago, a famous architect was commissioned to create a fashion bar in Paris. The project cost big money and looked great. However, he forgot one thing: the bartenders. No back bar and the sinks were the size of ashtrays".
And this is not an isolated incident. "Everybody in town was talking about another new opening," Field recalls. "It was stunning, like a Havana box. The place could take well over 100 people and was packed from day one. But there was a problem: the bar was only 2m long. A cocktail takes 45 seconds to make, with another 15 seconds for garniture – and that's if you're good. How can one bartender serve all those thirsty people? The bar must always be proportionally practical to the outside area."
In terms of look, Field feels that 'clasic' remains contemporary. "It's reassuring to touch good, heavy pieces of wood or marble. Art Deco and Art Nouveau have never gone out of fashion. I see too much plastic these days and fashionable places feel out of date within five years. The secret is to be modern without being achingly fashionable."
This is achievable on a budget. "Some people are willing to spend £2m upwards, but you can deliver a fantastic product for £300,000," observes Bargh,
Although one should only view design as a basic, albeit integral, part of an overall concept. "When our group is brought on board, I ask what this bar wants to be known for. Everything stems from that – furniture, graphics, lighting, menus, uniforms – but there has to be total commitment to the concept from everybody involved. We're not short of ideas, but it is only through this kind of dedication that the venture will be a success."
Field agrees. "You've got to be coherent from start to finish," he explains. "I remember being in a very grand hotel with pictures of horses all over the walls. When I asked the bartender why, he said he hadn't got a clue. That's not what the client wants to hear. There should be a story: 'Well, that's Rocket. He ran the Grand National in 1927, broke his leg, but still got up to finish the race'. Everything has to be there for a reason, and your bar should tell a story."
YOU'LL NEVER FORGIVE BAD SERVICE
If Field's bar could speak, it would certainly have some stories to tell. Named after the daiquiri-loving author and regular, the Hemingway Bar has been mixing drinks since 1921. "There are an enormous number of things up on the walls here," Field admits, "but to call this a theme bar would be an insult. A couple of years ago, I was operating another bar in the hotel as well as this one. I'd come to check that everything was all right and I could see the soul just oozing around the room – so thick you could cut it."
When Field was approached to reopen the bar in 1993 it had lain dormant for a decade. "At the time I didn’t see this as being much of a cocktail bar," he admits. "It was a place for reading and relaxing. Within five minutes of the opening night, I’d changed my mind. It sounds like a cliché, but you have to listen to the clients and have the conviction to react to what they say immediately."
Drinks are naturally an integral part of this proposition. "Know your clientele," advises Field. "If one of my bartenders tells me he's invented a new cocktail, I want to know whether it was invented for guys or girls, executives or stressed ladies: don't call a cocktail aimed at a 30-something, high-flying executive the Pink Flamingo; call it the Jaguar."
Attention to detail is key. It is just before midday when we meet, but Field has already been hard at work for several hours. "I've just prepared 70 glasses of water with a slice of cucumber in each," he tells me. "These won't be opened until later this evening and will help set the tone. Right from the water the clientele receive when they arrive, I want the whole experience to be 'wow'."
One might think it is the drinks and décor that will make or break an operation, but neither Field nor Bargh entirely subscribe to this view. "You’ll forgive the odd dodgy fishcake but never bad service," declares Bargh.
"If people invested as much in training as they do in PR campaigns, then this would be an amazing place to work", he says. "There are much easier ways to make a living than working in the bar trade. It's tough. You have to do it because you love it."
CLIENT OF THE DAY
"Thomas Cook told his representatives: 'Learn to like people'," says Field. "I'm looking for people to whom this comes naturally. There's one constant with all the bars I like: great service. It's also about passion. When I first came to Paris in 1981, I'd take girls out to dinner and ask them to test me from a list of 76 different cocktails. Not very romantic, I know, but I was a fanatic."
Bargh believes that more should be done to encourage such fanaticism. "I'd like to see more examples of apprenticeship schemes," he says. "Alan Yao is looking at something in this area as we speak, but most owners and operators do not see the point."
They are also not laying sufficient groundwork. "I really despair when people don't want to invest in dry runs," Bargh sighs. "One doesn't expect a stage actor to go out and raise the roof on his first night without any rehearsal. The classroom environment is very different to going live; give your staff a chance so that they know what they're doing."
And even if you have early success, the work does not end there. "I never sat down and decided on my bar being as it is now," Field explains. "The look, the clientele and the drinks have evolved over time. Getting the feel, the look, the drinks and the staff right is only the start. One must continue to innovate. I have no 'cocktail of the day' until I have a 'client of the day'."