The restaurant bar can play a key role in the duration of a guest’s visit. From when they are seated and offered a drink to start, through to a post-dinner nightcap, it is dedicated to refreshment, quenching their thirst and helping the food go down easier. Whether it’s water for the table, their favourite spirit brand or more ice in their lemonade – the bar is the place that will have the solution.
As the quality of drinks and the drinking experience have become just as important as the food in restaurants, the presence of the bar has grown. It is now toe-to-toe with an open kitchen. We are seeing many operators acknowledge this and give the bar the platform it deserves. Beautiful cocktails, ice cold beers and sparkling wines don’t come out of thin air.
Last month, PizzaExpress did just this with the launch of its Langham Place site near Oxford Circus. A rebranding incorporated a more open kitchen and a dedicated bar that aims to be a destination for pre- or post-dinner drinks, serving new cocktails and snacks. Bubbledogs founder Sandia Chang also saw the benefits of reopening her Fitzrovia site with more of a bar first, restaurant second focus; while Farmer J in London City has just launched a bar called The Shouk within its King William Street home, serving a graze menu with cocktails.
One operator that has given many of its bars a special spotlight is Wahaca. Co-founded by Thomasina Miers and Mark Selby in 2007, the Mexican-inspired restaurant serves tacos, quesadillas, burritos and enchiladas, with a big focus on drinks largely driven by the local spirits that are renowned in that part of the world.
As many restaurants do, the drinks at Wahaca are made to complement its concept and food menu. Serving Mexican food means tequila and mezcal takes over much of the back bar and drinks menu. While a large presence is necessary, authenticity is paramount for creating a true experience of these agave spirits.
“Almost everyone I have ever met can, with a horrified smile, recall a moment of their youth where a night fuelled by cheap tequila put them off the spirit for life,” says Selby. “Our big mission has been to slowly woo people back to appreciating the incredible process of how real, 100% agave and no added sugars tequila is made, stored and how it should be enjoyed.”
As a result – and as follows the trend for alcohol consumption of late – tequila and mezcal is not slammed with salt and lime, but included in a variety of cocktails that are designed to transport guests to a sunnier climate.
“We focus on what we call ‘sunshine cocktails’ – cocktails that reflect the natural energy that comes from an agave plant,” explains Selby. “Most of these plants have been growing in the Mexican sunshine for seven to 10 years, taking in all that sunshine and goodness, hence the name. We also have classic cocktails, served with a twist. For example, our hibiscus-infused G&T or the Passionfruit and Vanilla Mojito.”
Like any decent restaurant bar, Wahaca doesn’t just focus on one style of drink. It has a selection of beers, from the popular Corona Extra through to the Pinche Guey. Beers can also be served with a Mexican twist, with freshly squeezed lime juice and a salt rim, or with a side of tequila (to be sipped, not shot). Not ones to rely on the obvious, Selby also tells me that the bar team has been working on its wine menu, “to demonstrate that wine and Mexican food go incredibly well”, offering customers some education on the two.
While there is variety at the bar, the Mexican concept clearly beckons customers to follow suit, as the classic margarita and the inspired Mexpresso Martini take two of the top cocktail spots.
Wahaca has sites across the UK, from up in Edinburgh to down in Brighton. With the majority based in London, it can be a difficult task to keep the price of cocktails low, but the majority of the menu is priced between £7 and £7.50, despite Selby claiming to take inspiration from the higher end sphere of standalone bars. While he doesn’t give much away about which particular brands and concepts he admires, he gets excited when talking about how much the team looks to Mexico for inspiration.
“Tommi and I go back around once a year and always look out for inspiration for the whole Wahaca offering,” he says. “We are always checking out new and exciting tequila and mezcal producers, and interesting cocktail recipes that we may be able to adapt back home. More generally, these trips are really important to inspire and educate our team, making sure they develop a love and appreciation for the spirits and the culture in which they are enjoyed, so that can be shared with their teams and customers.”
With bright cocktails and an injection of Mexican spirit, the bar can often be the life and soul of the party. Recognising how important the sole bar experience is, where sites allow, Wahaca has its own dedicated bar area separate from the restaurant itself. This means that guests can continue drinking within a bar atmosphere after their dinner, or skip the dining room altogether for a different experience with drinks and canapes. In order to do this successfully, Wahaca has to ensure the bar can hold its own.
Depending on which Wahaca site customers visit, the extent of the bar experience may differ. Some offer table football, which can be found in many of the bars in Mexico City, and some even have DJ nights. The team has also welcomed fellow local bars to collaborate, including El Bandito in Liverpool, which saw the Graffiti Spirits Group bar serve its own bespoke cocktails. Selby explains that all are individually designed to the location and customer needs, meaning that some have more of an emphasis on the bar than others.
“In some of our sites, a bar works really naturally and the consumers in that area definitely interact with all aspects of the site,” he says. “However, in others we feel that the restaurant is the main event and should stay that way. In these sites, our food is at the forefront, but the drinks offer has to complement that. It’s all about balance between the two.”
This makes sense – customers are more likely to want a standalone bar after work in London, than after shopping in Bluewater in Kent. This is why you will find a dedicated bar in Soho, Fitzrovia, Canary Wharf, Manchester and Liverpool. These are not treated like waiting areas; customers can book spaces in the bar rather than in the restaurant, for individual tables or private hire.
While some sites may have dedicated bar areas, and others not, the design of the bar is always meant to draw in visitors, wherever they may be.
“The bar is the first thing you see when you enter most Wahacas, so it has to be really appealing and enticing,” says Selby. “Our main goal is to persuade people to try cocktails with mezcal or tequila, so the bar operation is critical to that.”
This leads us onto the amount of time and investment that goes into creating the bar spaces. If a restaurant wants a bar to look the part, it needs to be prepared for challenges and to put in some serious effort.
“We have played with many different textures and materials, from washing concrete blue and creating this incredible five-metre bar in Canary Wharf, to using the old wooden dance floor from the former nightclub (Bad Bobs) in our first site in Covent Garden,” recalls Selby. “The builders were not happy when I asked them to spend two days pulling nails out of the wood and cleaning every board! But it was amazing to retain that heritage and to reuse those viable materials as part of our ongoing pledge to be as sustainable as possible across every aspect of our business.”
The pressure on operators to be sustainable is just another challenge added to operating a restaurant bar. Not only are great drinks and a special experience vital, but bars must be shown to be reducing waste, from getting rid of plastic straws to reusing and upcycling materials. Operators that put such a focus on the bar are faced with extra work, costs and challenges, but given the popularity of a premium experience in today’s eating out market, those that step up to the bar will reap the rewards.