In general, a bar fronted by a kitschy psychic’s booth does not instil confidence in the quality of its cocktails inside. But New York speakeasy Employees Only not only makes it cool, its drinks are award-winning too.
Last year, the bar took fourth place on the list of The World’s 50 Best Bars by Drinks International magazine. It also holds the title of All-Time Achiever, with seven appearances on the prestigious list since the bar opened in 2004.
Last month, Employees Only Singapore opened its doors at 112 Amoy Street. Co-founder Igor Hadzismajlovic, together with nightlife veteran Josh Schwartz (who previously ran the club Pangea), had entertained the idea of bringing the American bar here years back.
“We looked at a hundred places over four years to find the exact foot print, but nothing measured up. This space has a skylight like the New York bar,” says Hadzismajlovic. Together with executive chef Julia Jaksic and principal bartender Steve Schneider, the trio moved from New York to oversee Employees Only Singapore. Inside, the iconic curving serpentine bar top, marble fl oors and even the fortune-teller booth are replicated. The food menu is largely the same.
“Good food gives (a bar) longevity,” says Hadzismajlovic, who gave Jaksic the brief to “make food people wouldn’t get drunk on”. Read: Hearty fare to soak up alcohol.
For dinner, Jaksic dishes out composed creations like porterhouse pork chop with blackeyed peas. Towards the later hours, though, is when the grub turns wickedly greasy. Think bone marrow poppers and truffle grilled cheese sandwiches designed to sop up the strong alcohol content in the cocktails (each drink here has a generous 45ml pour, compared to a standard 30ml).
As a bar originally intended for fellow bartenders to unwind after hours, what Employees Only has going for it is also an incredible ability to connect with customers. “A good bartender should naturally know who wants to be left alone, or not, and help introduce people,” says Hadzismajlovic. He recalls when co-founder, Henry Lafargue, successfully paired up two belligerent customers.
“There was a guy who came in (to the New York bar) and was clearly a nut job. We were all pretending to be busy, but Henry gravitates to these oddballs. Then another female nut job came in, (Henry) smoothly introduced them, and they just clicked from there,” he says. “This isn’t taught in bar schools, but when you put the right people together, it makes your job easier, because you can remove yourself and move on to something else.”
This camaraderie makes Employees Only the most anticipated bar opening this year. “In Singapore, it’s a small market with regulars who crave familiarity. Unlike Vegas, where people come and go,” says Schwartz. There’s even a badge of honour given to bar-goers who last the night – comfort in the form of chicken soup. “It helps with your hangover, so you’ll come back,” says Jaksic.