Harry’s Bar, visited April 2017

IMG_3913I didn’t think there was any need to qualify this bar as being the one in Venice; there’s only one real Harry’s Bar, and it is the one in Venice. There are others: Mark Birley’s smart Italianate club in S. Audley Street, London, two others in the same city, a steakhouse in New York, and most confusingly of all, Harry’s New York Bar in Paris, to name only a tiny number. But the bar that they all owe something to is the one in Calle Vallaresso in Venice, opened in 1931 by Giuseppe Cipriani. The history is worth reading, so do visit the Cipriani website to hear the origins of this tiny and beautiful bar in one of the most atmospheric cities in the world.

I’m an unashamed fan of this bar*. I come for the drinks, the location and the history. But to read Tripadvisor, there are a heck of a lot of grumpy people in the world, who find the place not up to their remarkably high opinion of their own critical faculties. Frankly, if you’ve come all the way to Venice, to complain about the price of a Bellini, you are in the wrong bar; go somewhere where they serve giant frozen Margaritas in a novelty hurricane glass for $6. Secondly, don’t complain about the size of the place: we’re in Venice: places are tiny & you may be expecting something with the size (and atmosphere) of a hotel lobby, but you aren’t going to find it here. And finally, don’t complain about the bar being unfriendly – you brought that attitude in with you and the staff are simply reflecting it back at you.

For the rest of us, the routine is simple:

IMG_4589 2Enter the bar with a smile on your face, order nicely, watch the staff make your drink with care & serve it to you with style.

Enjoy it, order another, and enjoy that, too. Talk to your companions & look at the beautiful  woodwork.

Watch Marco mix drinks with a joy that the man who is only the ninth head barman since the place opened 88 years ago can do. Talk to him nicely, and suddenly he’ll produce some of the bottles hidden in those tiny cupboards behind the bar that have been there since 1931 & tell you their stories. Within the space of a few minutes, you have gone from being a tourist to an insider. Harry’s is now your bar, too, and you can come back any time.

You’ll walk away with a wonderful sense of place, time & the joy a well-mixed drink can produce.

And don’t care a jot about the bill. You’re in Venice & you’ve been in Harry’s Bar.

* We were married in Venice & our wedding party had a riotous night here in our wedding day.

 

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Punch Room, visited 31st March

img_1978On Wednesday, I went to see the exhibition on John Dee, the Elizabethan scientist, sorceror & spy at the Royal College of Physicians, custodian of many of his books and artefacts.

I went, not only because of an interest in Dee, but because I accompanied my friend, Lloyd Shepherd, who has written a historical novel that includes Dee – or more particularly his library – as a key element in his C19th story. Lloyd had seen some other of Dee’s books up close as part of his research for the novel (being published later this month, and I recommend you read it), but here was a rare chance to see some of the rarer books in the Royal College’s collection.

The exhibition was great, but to end the afternoon properly, we needed something suitably traditional drink to toast the upcoming novel. A bowl of punch*, that most English of alcoholic mixtures, seemed most appropriate (Lloyd’s novel refers to the East India Company, where we get our love of punch from), so we visited the Punch Room at the London Edition hotel. This is a small bar, hidden at the rear of the hotel lobby, and in keeping with the current trend for speakeasies, completely anonymous from the outside. The hotel suggests a strict reservations-only policy, but when we were there it seemed to me that hotel residents are (quite fairly) treated more relaxedly. The benefit of the system means that one visits a busy, but not crammed bar. There are two rooms – one with a fabulous stand-alone serving bar where all the mixing takes place, the other an even quieter, smaller space with comfortable armchairs. The design is apparently to suggest a  gentlemen’s wood-panelled club room, though here the materials used are quite light and modern and the chairs low, but this means the space is warm and inviting, not dark and oppressive.

We drank the Arrak punch (arrak, lemon juice, chai tea, honey essence), which packed a… kick (avoiding the obvious joke), after starting with a glass of their complementary house punch. Both were really lovely: warming, sharp & refreshing.

The good thing about a punch is the sharing nature of the drink – it’s fun to ladle out the mix into your glasses – and the higher juice content against a lower alcohol perecntage means these are longer drinks, to be sipped slowly while talking, making them ideal for a conversational sort of an evening.

 

  • According to Wikipedia:

The drink was brought to England from India by sailors and employees of the British East India Company in the early seventeenth century. From there it was introduced into other European countries. When served communally, the drink is expected to be of a lower alcohol content than a typical cocktail

 

 

Nightjar, visited 5th March

photo-2With a proper speakeasy attitude, Nightjar can be as almost as hard to find as it is to book a table: a properly battered & nondescript door, with the smallest of nameplates that is the only clue that you are at the right place, on a busy road near London’s Old Street underground station. This leads onto a tiny hallway where you stand and wait as the doorman checks with the receptionist downstairs. Once cleared, though, you’re ready to descend into as perfect a nightspot you’ll find this side of 1920s Chicago. The tables are low, almost as low as the lights, and if you want theatre, try to get one of the banquette side tables on the right, where you’ll have a great view of the bar and the work of the staff as they make some of the most elaborate drinks I have been served, barring the blue whisky sour with sparkler I once had in Hamburg. The cocktail menu comes with glasses of water & a small bowl of popcorn, and you are given plenty of time to decide whether to start with something simple & classic, or jump right into the sharing drinks that come served in pots stills, shells or probably even a watering can. Further into the bar are some intimate tables, and a stage for the live bands. The space is dimly lit, but it’s an enfolding, attractive kind of darkness – not gloom – a place that invites leaning into your companion to talk and get closer together.

photoOur first (and only – see later) two drinks, a Boulevardier & a Brooklyn, were excellently made, beautifully chilled, though I was baffled by mine being cooled by a submerged chocolate teddy bear in the glass, and Liz by the appearance of her cherry garnish, not in the drink, but glued to the stem of her glass with chocolate spread. On the table next to us, a jolly French party tried to come to grips with a conch shell that foamed with dry ice & a ceramic drinking flask that was garnished with sugar eggs & what seemed to be an ear of corn. The drinks, despite the eccentric trappings, are fabulous – balanced, strong & very drinkable. It’s when we decide to move onto a shared cocktail, the bonkers ‘Alchemist’s Brew’, served in a miniature copper still, complete with dry ice vapour coming from the chimney, that the wheels come off the wagon somewhat. We’re on a tight schedule, having been initially told the table was only ours for 90 minutes and so are heading onto another bar.

Nightjar cards

Five minutes before we’re due to leave, there is still no sign of our second drink; the bar is backed up with orders & they haven’t been able to assemble our smoking construction. We’ll have to leave that one for another time; but the staff are lovely & make amends, and we leave with our pockets bulging with Nightjar playing cards, a bill lightened by several deductions & an earnest wish to come again.

Nightjar, 129 City Road, London