Feature: The ‘new generation’ of theatre bars

Mark Ludmon reports on a “new generation of theatre bars” where cocktails and craft beers play a major role

Traditionally, theatre bars have been just for downing a gin and tonic or a glass of wine during the interval crush, but now owners are investing in bars that not only stay open longer but attract people who are not even going to a show. In Manchester, Ambassador Theatre Group is transforming former office space at the Palace Theatre into a new bar that will operate from 5pm to midnight, even when there are no productions on, open to the general public. Launching in mid-September, it will serve a broader range of beers, ciders, spirits and wines than other bars at the theatre, including cocktails.

A stand-alone bar was at the heart of plans for the Park Theatre (pictured top) which opened in Finsbury Park, north London, in May. It has a rustic-style licensed café-bar on the ground floor by the entrance and a second bar on the first floor. “The bar and café are designed to be much more than just a space for interval drinks,” explains the theatre’s artistic director Jez Bond. “We want them to become a hub for the local community.”

The Park Theatre was created out of a vacant office building, with a 200-seat main house and a smaller studio space, designed by David Hughes Architects. A large atrium connects the café bar and upper bar, filling the space with natural light. The bars are open during the daytime until midnight on weekdays and 2am at weekends, run by the team from popular bar The Cut at the Young Vic Theatre in Southwark. The first-floor bar features reclaimed furniture and lights and refurbished fittings from other theatres, with a large bay window overlooking the street. The bar counter is clad in over 200 theatre programmes while vintage theatrical books hang from the ceiling.

lost theatre

At Lost Theatre in Stockwell, south London, Bar 208 (pictured above) is tucked away up a flight of stairs past the box office, normally seen only by people coming for shows. The bar has now been refurbished, with an increased emphasis on craft beers such as Fordham and Old Dominion in Delaware in the US, including Hop Mountain Pale Ale, Oak Barrel Stout and Beach House Golden Pilsner. The bar has also added craft ciders and premium spirits, including gins. Aiming to attract people outside of show times, the theatre’s director-in-residence Oliver Jack describes it as “the new generation of theatre bar”.

This new generation can trace its lineage back to bars such as The Cut, which opened when the Young Vic was refurbished in 2006, and the Pit Bar at the nearby Old Vic. The architects behind The Cut, Haworth Tompkins, also created a destination bar at the Royal Court theatre in Chelsea as part of a refurbishment in 2000. More recently, standalone bars have been appearing in theatres across London, such as the laid-back café-bar at the Bush Theatre in Shepherds Bush when it moved to its current home in 2011.

The Royal Shakespeare Company Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon reopened in 2010 after a complete revamp that added several new bars including the Rooftop Bar & Restaurant, where bar manager Alice Cook creates cocktails inspired by the latest productions. Her latest creation has been inspired by the RSC’s staging of a new play by Mark Ravenhill based on Voltaire’s classic novel Candide, whose ever-optimistic main character famously talks of “everything for the best in the best of all possible worlds”. For The Optimist’s Cocktail, Alice has mixed citrus vodka, cranberry juice, grenadine and blue curacao, which is served in a chemistry lab beaker with measures marked up the side. On ordering, customers are asked whether they think their glass is half empty – or half full.

bar St. James Theatre Bar. Photo credit Tom Cronin

St James Theatre (pictured above), which opened in Victoria in London last year, includes a stylish destination bar and restaurant, designed by Foster Wilson Architects. Open from midday to 11pm Monday to Saturday, it serves classic cocktails made with premium spirits such as Tanqueray gin and Ketel One vodka. Also last year, wine and spirits company Berry Bros & Rudd created the chic, glamorous No 3 Bar at the Royal Albert Hall, which serves not only its No 3 Gin but cocktails, wines and snacks. Responding to a lack of bars in the area around the venue, it is open two hours before every performance, in the interval and after the show.

After a two-and-a-half year refurbishment, Birmingham Repertory Theatre returns to the city’s Centenary Square this month. The new-look building includes the Centenary Bar & Brasserie at The Rep which will be run by Searcys, which operates restaurants and Searcys Champagne Bars. The Brasserie will open every day from 11am through to late-night snacks while the café-bar will offer craft beers and classic cocktails. Stuart Rogers, executive director at The Rep, says: “Searcys is known for its fantastic quality and service, so visitors to The Rep can expect not only a wonderful new theatre but also a memorable dining experience.”

Published in Bar magazine, September 2013

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