The American Bar at the Savoy, London, with its roster of famous alumni and groaning trophy cabinet has been making cocktail magic for 100 years. But it’s not resting on its laurels; Bartender Nate Brown looks at all the little things that come together to create perfection.
There’s no such thing as magic. It’s a trick. I don’t like tricks. Fool me once and I’ll hold it against you for an eternity. Similarly, I don’t like surprises. I’m not one for pomp. I don’t take kindly to those who show off. I’m not an attention seeker. Nor do I handle compliments well. I don’t like it when people make an effort for me, nor for themselves. Least of all, I hate it when people believe that different equals better. Difference for the sake of difference gets no stars from me.
I don’t like the showmanship, the frills. I’m a sucker for the understated, the details. To me, it’s obvious that a table should be kept clean, cocktails should arrive subito, and the wine should arrive before the meal. On the whole, a well functioning bar is a case of simple mechanics. I want a bartender to know more about the products they’re selling than the guests do. I want the lighting to make me feel something other than self-conscious. The music in lounge bars should be there, providing a welcome function, noticeable only by its absence. Like a belt.
Basically, there are component parts to hospitality propositions. And these can be executed well or poorly, accounting for subjectivity. Nevertheless, when these things are all in alignment, they form something greater than the sum of their parts. A great bar, by doing the simple things well, can do something special.
What makes the American Bar, Savoy so special?
Picture, if you will, the Mona Lisa. What do you see? Some see a painting by Leonardo da Vinci, others see an intriguing lady, others see colours, others see a story. But almost no one sees the hundreds of thousands of imperceptible brushstrokes that make up the whole. On their own, each brushstroke, each mark on the canvas is insignificant, irrelevant, unskilled, and inconsequential. But you only have to look at the whole to understand the power achieved when each one is executed perfectly.
And it’s much the same when we enter an excellent bar. London is blessed with a prudent handful of these masterpieces. Homeboy’s jovial conviviality is a masterpiece. The drinks at Mint Gun Club too (hurry back please MGC).
Yet, for me, there is none more so masterly than the American Bar at the Savoy. There is no place I’d rather be. It’s fancy, but not it’s not the frills that excite me. This is the place where the team enact a supernatural ability to blend the familiar with the formal. They are the ultimate creators of their environment, here to lord over us guests with benevolent charm and intoxicating potions.
The American Bar at the Savoy is a true masterpiece. It’s a place where guests like me can feel special without being special. It’s a place where the bartenders, in their fancy dress, know your name. I’ve always said (borrowed) that guests don’t return to the bars that they know best, they return to the bars that know them best. With the American Bar, not only is this true, but it’s probably the only place where I want them to know me best.
This is the place where a cocktail of guests from all over the world, existing on all time zones, with all manner of agendas, come together to have a Sazerac, or a Hanky Panky, or a beer, or a vino. Where else can a grumpy introvert like me freely engage in a conversation with the guest at the next stool over, not knowing if they’re a Sheik or a shopkeeper, a millionaire, or just a bartender on his night off? This is a bar where Hemingway and Sinatra drank, and where I take my Dad. It’s a place where I can host, or be hosted, where I can entertain and be entertained. That’s a thought worth savouring.
I could (and did) try to break the bar down to its component parts. The canvas, for example, isn’t the best. As fabulous as the lobby entrance is, the carpet in the bar (I have a thing about carpets) is all kinds of wrong. Likewise, the bar itself is tucked away in the corner of the room. It shouldn’t be. The music is bordering on cliche. But how I wish I was there right now, listening to ‘My Way’ again, sipping on my Martini, expertly made my way: painting my palate brilliantly cold, all gin and spice and steel. How refreshing it is to see some not just take my order, but understand it. So simple. So powerful.
I want to be there now, having oysters, drinking pastis, chatting to the bartenders and the hosts, seeing familiar faces and close friends, hearing the ice rattle in the shaker, and the popping of corks table-side. I want to wander out at the end of the night, half-elated, half-skint, all happy.
Trying to analyse what makes this bar so darn good is like looking at the brush strokes on the Mona Lisa. I’m not down for that. Instead, I’ll hurry back to this place, this, dare I say it, magical masterpiece.