When secret bars first burst into the Singapore scene, the elusive entrances, handsome interiors, exclusivity and quality drinks are just some of the reasons why many flocked to these spaces.
Fast forward a couple of years and the market has matured, barflies know where all the secret entrances are, and there are more cocktail bars serving up quality tipples than ever before.
How then does a speakeasy whose draw is in the sexiness of secrecy retain its allure and draw in the crowds? After all, beyond the initial opening hype, keeping the cash tills healthy is every business’s priority.
For Dario Knox, the man behind one-year-old bar The Other Room, it’s all about cultivating a regular clientele and offering them the promise of another form of exclusivity. In his case, a secret menu of rotating cocktails where names and ingredients are not disclosed anywhere.
The once secret bar has after all, turned into a famed award-winning establishment – even clinching a spot for itself at number 35 on 2017 Asia’s 50 Best Bars list despite being only in its first year.
Passport to drinking
“The only way you get access [to the secret menu] is to get the passport and work your way through,” says Knox.
This passport consists of pages that make up all of the bar’s signature drinks – all 30 of them, and access is only given when a customer has tried them all.
Detractors might dismiss it as yet another ploy to drum up hype but for Knox, it’s about gifting exclusivity, hospitality and dare we say – the privilege of secrecy to the precious few.
“An easy 70 – 80 percent [of our customers] are regulars,” says Knox, “And for our one year anniversary, we wanted to start giving something back to them, and give them something exclusive – so it’s pretty much like a loyalty program that you can’t buy access to.”
The idea of a secret menu in a bar is of course, by no means new. Some of America’s buzziest drinking spots have them too. San Francsico – one of the cities where the authorities clamped down hard during the 1920s era of Prohibition is home to at least three bars with hidden menus; Beretta, interactive speakeasy The Palace Theatre and Pabu — where secret drinks are named after members of the yakuza.
Such universal appeal of secrecy, at least according to Knox, lies in our desire to be surprised. “Why do we go to see a magic show when we all know magic doesn’t exist?” he asks. “We all want to be fooled even for just a moment. We all want to be enchanted by something out of the ordinary.”
Secret? Or Customised?
But how exactly can a secret drink differentiate itself from a customised drink? After all, skilled bartenders can craft a new cocktail fairly quickly and if it’s fancy enough, can be just as enchanting.
Knox chuckles at that suggestion and explains: “The cocktails engage all five senses and created to trigger a memory. When the guests unlocks the secret menu, he will get [a pair of] headphones to listen to the recording which hints at the memory.”
When Lifestyle Asia Singapore dropped in to suss out the menu, the cocktail of the day was inspired by the memory of the beach. Sounds of the sea and a deep booming voice filled the soundblocking headphones. The experience was intimate as the audio blocked all other sounds.
Next came a treasure chest containing a seashell which holds the drink. The entire concept is somewhat reminiscent of Heston Blumenthal’s Sound of The Sea – a signature where a dish that’s made to resemble the sea comes with an ipod for diners to listen to waves crashing as he eats.
“Everyone who’s had the secret menu has this expression of excitement,” he claims. “That expression in an adult – in a 50-year-old man with three kids or something is amazing. I wish we could find a way to grab that moment. It’s beautiful. We just want to gift you something different, and forget about everything else that’s happening outside.”
Long after the buzz of secrecy has gone out, Dario Knox has given at least one more reason for his stable of customers to come back for more. He says: “At the end of the day, when you go for a drink, you just want to have a good time.”