Wednesday, November 7, 2007

What Makes a Truly Great Bar?

I touched down at Narita airport in Japan following a 15-hour odyssey from Milan via Paris. After spending a couple of hours catching up with emails and work stuff in my Tokyo eyrie, the Park Hyatt in Shinjuku, I was invited by the manager to go up to the New York Bar and Grill for dinner. Sitting there on the 52nd floor, listening to a quartet from the U.S. play True Colors and looking at the Tokyo skyline, I started thinking about what makes a great bar. First, let me say that the New York Bar in Tokyo is great. It is one of my favorites. It’s always jammed pack with an interesting range of locals, ex pats, artists (Courtney Love was in town), and it is, of course, where Bill Murray wandered around in Lost in Translation.

Because I’m on the road so often, I don’t go out very much and tend to hang around in hotels. As I go to the same places most of the time, I always go to the same hotels to keep it all fairly familiar and relaxing. I’m no authority on the world’s greatest or coolest bars, but I do know what my favorite hotel bars are. The New York Bar in the Tokyo Park Hyatt is definitely in the top 10 for me. The Kirin classic beer is always fresh and served at just the right temperature - very cold. Asahi, the rising sun, is probably the best known Japanese beer overseas but classic Kirin takes some beating. It uses local hops and is reminiscent of great European beers like Becks, Kronenberg and Stella.

So what is it that makes a truly great bar?
For me it’s down to:
1) Lighting. Vitally important for intimacy, relaxation and comfort. All this trendy, hot, cool lighting is no good for me after an 18-hour flight, a full day’s work and an early start in the morning. I need a place that’s calm, tranquil and warm.
2) Music. The music has got to be satisfying, interesting and familiar with a touch of intrigue. And the volume has to be just right. I’m long past the stage where I go into a bar to shout.
3) A good bar has exactly the right mix of people. It’s your tribe but it’s not your family. They are people you’d like to get to know, people you wish you knew, and some people you’re glad you don’t know. But they all look as if they belong to your tribe or one close by. They look interesting, inspirational and there are enough of them to make you feel you’re in the right place.
4) Bars should be 60% full. No more, no less.
5) Good bars serve very good red wines by the glass. Bad bars don’t.
6) Good bars serve European and local beers fresh and at the right temperature, and in tall, slim, European lager glasses.
7) And finally, the service in good bars is unobtrusive, anticipatorial and never noticed.

So here’s a selection of my top hotel bars starting with my ol’ time favorite, the Hemingway Bar at the Ritz in Paris. Regular readers will know this one from a previous post. It’s run by Colin Field, one of the world’s top 3 bartenders and led by Christophe, a good rugby man. It’s as good as it gets. It’s a man’s bar but it’s sexy. It has history, legacy and the greatest cocktails in the world with all the aforementioned prerequisites met. I’ve had some huge nights there. The bar officially closes at 3:00am but I’ve been in there with Fitzpatrick, Kirwan, Mexted, Whetton, Kirton and other rugby names until the early hours.

The Polo Lounge in Beverly Hills makes the cut on every dimension. Plus you can throw in a bit of celebrity spotting. There’s a new bar now opened along side it at The Beverly Hills Hotel in L.A., which I haven’t been to yet but my betting is it’s going to be great. They know how to do bars at the Beverly Hills.

I’ve been a member of the Met Bar at the Metropolitan in London since it opened just over a decade ago. It had its period of notoriety driven by cool Britannia, Oasis, etc., but it’s still one of the great hotel bars. Great music, great atmosphere and always lots going on.

The bar at the Bulgari in Milan cannot be overlooked. Great Super Tuscans by the glass along with probably the best lot of hors d'oeuvres and freebies I’ve ever seen. By the time dinner comes around it’s almost time to go out (or upstairs to bed).

As you’d expect, Rocco Forte knows how to do bars. He does intimacy beautifully at the Amigo in Brussels, at The Lowry in Manchester, at the Villa Kennedy in Frankfurt, at the Hotel de Rome in Berlin and so it goes on. He understands the lighting and music stuff particularly well and always has a great range of wines available.

I don’t often stay in hotels in the U.K., but before I got my place in Grasmere I had a few good nights at the Linthwaite House Hotel in Windermere. Up there, overlooking the lake and usually in the snow and the rain, you can feel pretty cozy. I can tell you we’ve had one or two late ones in the very snug easy chairs at Linthwaite House. Try it next time you’re up in the Lakes if you want to relax with a piece of great Lancashire cheese and a 40-year old Tawny Port.

Finally, the WooBar at the W in Seoul and Dragonfly at ZaZa in Dallas are not to be missed. The WooBar is the longest in Asia, has great cold pints of OB beer, an amazing space age DJ pod and brilliant Space Odyssey style bleacher seating. And Dragonfly...just a great place full of beautiful people.