Every two years since 2009, Australian Bartender announces the Most Influential List, the Top 100 names from the bar industry; the people who have led the charge to make this industry the innovative and entertaining game it is. And again this year, a staple of the bartender arsenal, Angostura aromatic bitters, sponsored the event, helping to make it bigger and better than ever.
The Top 100 was voted for in an online poll by members of the bar trade, whittling down the thousands of potential names to just 100. Then during Sydney Bar Week we announced the Top 10, with Swillhouse’s Jason Scott and Anton Forte taking the top spot for the third time. This just goes to show how much influence their venues – such as The Baxter Inn, Restaurant Hubert, Frankies, and Shady Pines – continue to wield.
How does it feel to top the Most Influential List three times running?
Jason: It’s gratifying, I guess, it’s nice to be recognised for all the work that you do, and Guess this award is for coming up with new ideas more than anything else, so it’s nice to be recognised for that.
Anton: It’s nice that people consider our company a good place to work. It’s a bit of a popularity contest, and we’ve got lots of staff who love working here and love the company, it’s good to show that they exhibit their faith in us and in voting for us, it’s pretty cool, it’s pretty flattering.
Who are your influences, when it comes to the way you operate?
JS: I think for both of us, Keith McNally, the restaurateur, is a pretty big influence that came together a little later on, in terms of the way he likes to put a room together, and having a spirit of fun in all his venues. He owns Balthazar in New York. For me, working for Justin Hemmes was pretty cool.
AF: Yeah, absolutely.
JS: I was someone who probably bagged Merivale before I went and worked for them, and once I did work for them I thought, this is pretty good actually. I took a lot of, I guess, general influence on how to run a successful bar hospitality business just from my experience there.
AF: We’ve taken a lot of their model. And used it in our group — I guess, some service systems, but just kind of the spirit of having a good time, and looking after staff. I always found they look after their staff really well. If you’re injured, you get looked after, they pay you well, they give you 50 percent off food and drinks. I thought that was pretty generous and pretty cool.
Where do you get the passion for detail that you have — where does that come in?
AF: Just being fastidious.
JS: I think when you start on that train of looking after every detail, the more you cover, the more you haven’t done is more obvious. So if you do everything except for that corner there, for instance, then that becomes your focus. I think once you start doing that you have to follow it through to its full progression.
AF: I find that immersing yourself in the concept makes it a lot easier, it makes it clearer. If we’re completely in this era, we have to make sure that every detail is thought of and it’s authentic. We think the best venues in the world are authentic, so if we can focus on those details to try and emulate that as best as possible, it means we’ll be focusing on the service, the details of place settings, the atmosphere, and the vibe of the place.
JS: Yeah, a fully immersive experience. Because anything that jars with that — if you go into the toilets and there’s no music there, or the style is different to the venue — then that shakes people out their dream that they’re in, the full experience. That’s what we go for.
AS: And it’s fun doing the research, you know. We like to travel heaps together, get drunk and hang out in classic venues and see what people are doing.
How do you know when you’ve hit on a good concept?
JS: I think both Anton and I throw a lot of ideas in the air, that’s kind of how we do it. And if we both agree at the same time, we know it’s good, and we trust each other enough now to know, cool, that works, that’s good. And we don’t tend to then re-look at that again.
AS: We’ve got to be excited about the project — if we’re lacklustre at all, it means it’s not worthwhile. Usually the projects we’re excited in are the ones that are challenging, interesting, and kind of haven’t been done before. That’s the real driver, the real creativity that we’re passionate to explore.
Do you find a place to put the idea in or is it the other way, the place dictates the idea?
JS: Usually it’s idea first — we look at spaces all the time, and sometimes you look at a space and go, you know what would work well here? This. And when you have the space in mind, the physical dimensions, and the idea, that’s when it can gel.
AF: I think we’ve kind of done the space first. We’ve got a general idea and then it becomes clearer once we have the space.
JS: Well Baxter, we were definitely looking at doing a whisky bar in the city; Frankies, we were offered that space several times and we turned it down until we came up with the rock and roll idea. And Hubert was going to be somewhere else — it was meant to be a much smaller concept, like a 70 seat restaurant with 30-40 seat bar attached to it. But then that site fell through and this site came on the market and we looked at it and thought, this is huge, but could this work here? So then we had to adjust the concept too, it became a little more grand, more like an old restaurant than a dirty wine bar. So the space influenced the design in that sense.
AF: Once we’ve decided which direction we’re going in, we don’t deviate from it at all. That’s the theme, and we’ll work out the exact style, how we want the place to look, how we want the food to taste, how we want the staff to act, what music we’re playing, the whole thing. Then that’s pretty much our framework, and we try our best to emulate our dream place.
Are you putting these things down on paper?
JS: Yep, paper, but also just chatting about it, having drinks together and getting excited about what it is. I often think about our designs or our themes as not particularly wide, but really deep. Like, ok this is what we’re doing, how far can we go along this to make that work.
AF: I feel every venue needs a direction. I know that the whole theme bar gets thrown around and it can feel like an amusement park when it’s done badly, but even if it’s a modern eatery, like Nomad in Surry Hills, that’s a got a theme too. It’s focused. You go to Rockpool Bar & Grill, that’s a steakhouse — it’s not themed like that with cows and shit on the wall, but the focus is so deep.
How would you suggest that someone knows when they’re on to a good thing?
JS: When they themselves are excited about it. Think about, would I want to go there, how excited would I be about going there. It’s not being excited about particular light fitting or a colour or a style of music, think about what kind of venue would I like to go to. That’s how we work.
AF: We focus on making an awesome experience for the customer, we always think about our punters coming and getting super stoked about what we’ve created, loving the product we’re serving, and just trying to do the best thing for the customer — the venue has to be about the customer first. People can go too far on their own tangents, and we’ve gone down the rabbit hole before, but the core of it is a fundamental sense of hospitality.
Tell us a bit about some of your favourite bar experiences.
JS: I found this gay piano bar in the West Village called Marie’s Crisis Bar, which I had the most amazing time at. It’s a tiny little bar, and I’ve walked past it millions of times, down a doorway, down a couple of staircases, and then it opens up top this spot with a grand piano in the middle of it. And everyone is singing along — all they do is musical theatre songs. And the crowd is full of aspiring theatre singers, and theatre singers on their day off — you go on a Monday when most of the theatres are closed on Broadway. There’s this incredible dynamic feeling, with 50 people all singing the same song, all around this piano bar, drinking crap Gin & Tonics which are $3, and still double serve. And fun just happens. It feels so authentic, they’ve been doing it for 40 years, just a grand piano and people singing.
AF: I want to go there!
The places that I love are places I want to go to regularly. Like Minetta Tavern in New York, I could sit at the bar there four nights in a row. It’s been there since 1904, and it’s been rehashed as a modern steakhouse, but they haven’t changed the fit out.
It’s perfectly authentic — all the bartenders are in their 50’s and their all tough New Yorkers with big accents, they’ve got a great wine list, you get a Martini made in two minutes, it’s just fun. You’ve got all these characters surrounding you which is the full spectrum of the space, it just feels wholesome.
Is it creating an environment, is that the link between those places for you?
AF: Yep — somewhere that’s fun, somewhere that’s honest, there’s an electricity; that’s the most important thing.
JS: And where the customers own the experience as much as whoever created it, like I’m going there because it’s my kind of bar, and they feel that they’re making the place and their part of the place as well.