How should a bar be judged?
Do you measure it against every bar you’ve been to? Do you approach it with the hopes that this might be The One?
Or do you give it the benefit of the doubt for now, but really you’d rather be home in your Pjs watching Game of Thrones and only came out because your friends said you’d really get on.
There are seven types of bars in my experience:
- The Laconic: ‘Here I am take me or leave me, leave the money on the way out…’
- The Chameleon: ‘Tell me what you want me to be and I’m it’.
- The Statement: The glamorous stylish one where everything is considered and for effect, ‘Tell me how much you love me again darling’
- The Old Friend: You can pick up the conversation just where you left it months before, reliable and true.
- The Clinician: Everything is in order, in its place and delivers as per the book, but something is missing afterwards.
- The Missionary, ‘I can make you a better person, try this new craft bitters from Oregon, it will change your life’.
- The Pal: ” The no strings attached,a ‘short time is a fun time… lets have another!’.
So when a new place comes along, the temptation is to be seduced by this attractive stranger.
What is Old is New Again
Disclosure: This post is the result of an unsolicited approach by the QT Hotel Canberra.
Some months back I was contacted by one of the PR team from the group that runs the QT brand (plus the Art Series et alia) in a professional capacity so I had known for a bit it was coming.
Alas, I was in Melbourne for its official opening a few weeks back, but I was familiar with the concept of the QT from its sister Sydney property, where cute flapper girls wink at you from the front door as you walk past.
For a city not known for its theatrical nature (international readers may want to consider Ottawa a good likeness to Canberra with a touch of Washington DC) I did think that this was a brave move on the part of the company.
But as I’ve noted elsewhere Canberra’s come a long way of late, and it is also a tourist attraction, and so why not.
Besides, the hotel was looking its age compared to the raft of new hotels (not to mention the hipster-ville of New Acton across the road) and bars opened up…. it was evolve or die obviously.
This is the fourth QT hotel rolled out, with sister hotels aiming to capture the local vibe in Port Douglas (tropical chic), Gold Coast (Miami neon), Sydney (sassy and bold) .
They feature a mix of premium dining experiences with a artistic touches, outgoing staff, and a vibe not aiming to take itself too seriously.
the now vanished Cahoots bar, once a haunt of Politicians/journos and Canberra’s only bar with more angles that an inside scoop.
Back in the Day
To shed some light on why this hotel has some serious history to it, let me share some personal anecdotes.
For a long while this was THE hotel in Canberra.
Something like a million years back one of my first jobs ever was as a room service waiter there working my way through Uni.
Amongst the interminable rounds of making Club Sandwiches and Oysters Kilpatrick at 3am for drunks hotel guests (and lady friends), one of highlights of my life was taking breakfast in bed to Annie Lennox the morning after a concert.
I was going through a ‘rock stars are just like anyone’ Maoist phase, when my turn came around to take something up (brown toast and honey, mint tea) to her room.
She opened the door and smiled.
One of those million watt genuine smiles to some provincial hick reading too much Sartre. I did manage to say ‘Where would you like me, ahem sorry, the tray?’ before drifting out the room.
She’s quite short by the way.
Also, my first civilised bar experience was in this building. Several years back before the aforementioned episode, there was a bar, nay a disco, called Juliana’s.
It was dimly light, the bar was SUNKEN, there were drapes, booths and they played Sade. I remember being shocked that they charged $2 for water. Jacket and tie was obligatory, and if you wanted to watch the French Cultural Attache grooving to the Bee Gees with a young female aide from Yugoslavia, this was the place. I was very impressed.
I also used to live next door in my bachelor high rise pad, so often was the time when I had to rescue a single friend from a sad Desperate and Dateless night at Bobby McGees night club late at night, fending off the truly desperate on the way in and out like some special forces hostage rescue op.
More recently I held the media event for the Centenary Martini at the bar with the kind support of the hotel, it being such a Canberra landmark.
Kiss and Tell
I followed the opening of QT via social media with interest. Being a professional outfit they had lined up the social media types of note around town.
Their enthusiasm was palpable online, and it was exactly what the hotel would have hoped for.
I read several posts and tweets saying how fab the food + drinks were (complete with a hashtag helpfully provided) and pics of the view from their room at sunrise etc.
I might suggest that our locals were swept away by the moment, and after texting friends that the date was going well, don’t wait up, they won’t be back till morning, they fell for the charms of the new stranger.
Smooth Operator comes to mind.
So when the QT team got in touch with me recently via twitter (@canberramartini) and offered to have me around for a drink of course I was curious and willing to go. Being Easter when I was able to come back to Canberra the Lucky’s bar was closed alas, but they kindly arranged for some of their team to be on hand for to talk to, and make me a few cocktails gratis.
As fun as it is to share enthusiastically the new place- I prefer to wait at least several weeks before reporting on a place. Especially if they’ve gone all out to impress with free drinks and food at their opening etc. Best to wait a while to let it settle in, and to get the real guest experience to share in my opinion.
Cocktails First, Questions Later
So I was invited by Emily Byrne for a cocktail, she has come down from the Port Douglas QT as part of the opening team.
Sitting up at the bar, we enjoyed two excellent barrel aged Old Fashioned’s for my lovely wife, and a deftly made medium dry Aviation Gin Martini’s for me (Noilly Prat vermouth in case you were wondering).
We also dined in the Capital Bar and Grill later that evening, at our own expense, but we were given quite unexpectedly a rather delicious antipasto platter, so I can’t fault their hospitality.
The overall approach is to bring the QT style to each location, bring the staff up to speed and refine the pitch to suit the local market.
The designers have decided that politics should be the motif for the decor touches (e.g. black and white video of the laying for the Foundation Stone over 100 years ago on several screens) and pop-art images of political figures on the wall- such as the current US President (pictured).
There is also the balancing act of being a themed place, without being too gimmicky and fulfilling the day to day requirements of a hotel and conference facility.
The place certainly did not feel like some OTT experience. It was a quality hotel experience with a twist.
But I did make the point that Canberra is much more than the political actions on the hill these days and the venue needs to be seen in the context of the new wave bars and dining venues of late.
The interstate team were mindful of the potential synergies with New Acton for the hotel, but were yet to experience the range of new places around town having been absorbed by the opening weeks.
In between rounds I had a chance to chat to Byron Illyes, Bar Supervisor of Lucky’s, who made our drinks the night.
He’s one of the newly engaged locals who make up the team with a seasoning of specialist QT team members to bring a new energy to the staff.
“So far we’re attracting a young crowd keen on cocktails and we offer all the old school standards which are new to them. The bar is designed with low height to enable better engagement with the customer, so this gives us the chance to introduce them to these standards.” he observed.
“There is plenty of nooks and velvet curtains for privacy, crystal glassware and the space is dark, dimly lit, with the bar as the centrepiece. We’re aiming for the speakeasy style.”
“Having table service the bar team to focus on the craft, and the guest gets a better overall experience we think.”
When I asked about the service approach, ‘We’re going for big greetings and departures to bookend the guest experience with awesome service all round.”
BTW- Lucky’s is accessed via the barber shop near the back door.
The Take Home
Hotels are now competing not just each other, but all the independent quality venues for the attention and dollar.
They need to be authentic in the experience they offer, and still polished in their service and product.
So this landmark Canberra building has evolved into a contemporary, quality and unpretentious venue. I liked the experience, the lighting and the quality of everything was excellent (including dinner).
Price point wise- you can to expect to pay quality hotel prices, though this is matched by the generous food portions and overall quality of the products and environment.
That said, it didn’t struck me as a radical change physically to the previous space, more a cosmetic change.
But it does offers a significant improvement on its previous incarnation and a worthy evolution of this venerable hotel.
To my mind the trick will be to ensure it finds a happy alignment in elevating locals and visitors into their quality experience they’re promising, and keeping the service edge of their local team and not fall back into the common Canberra trap of easing back into small town familiarity.
So was I seduced? As a first date it left me pleasantly surprised and I noticed the effort made to make an impression. Numbers exchanged, but I I never kiss on the first date.
Byron mixed me (in a lovely crystal mixer) a medium dry Martini based on one of my favourites, Aviation gin from the USA. He asked how much vermouth I wanted millimetres wise, thinking old school speakeasy was the way to go I opted for 20ml (hence the cloudy look in the photos) of Noilly Prat vermouth, which still let the flavours of the gin to come through in a rounded way.
Poured first, garnish added seperately.
Tanqueray Gin, Noilly Prat Vermouth, $17
Gins In stock
Larios Gin house pour, Tanqueray,Hendricks, Plymouth, Junipero, Gordon’s, Haymans (several varieties) Beefeater, Martin Millers, Bombay Sapphire, Aviation, Tanqueray 10