Is O‘ahu Ready for the $18 Cocktail?
Two chic, new Downtown bars offer two very different visions of the perfect drink.
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Photo: Steve Czerniak
It used to be, in Honolulu, that a drink was just a drink. You’d sit down at the bar and order a vodka martini, or maybe a gin and tonic, and be ready to talk story with your friend. Simple.
Today, though, Honolulu’s bars are starting to evolve into full-on experiences. Not only are all the drinks custom-made, high-quality creations, the entire vibe of a new bar will have been carefully curated to create the perfect evening, from the bar stools to the ambient lighting. The prices have gone up, too, but somehow it no longer seems ridiculous to drop $18 on a cocktail. At least, not completely ridiculous.
Two new Downtown bars exemplify this “experience” approach to drinking—each in a completely different way. Are you a fan of dim, cozy hideouts with world-class bartenders who cater to your every whim? Or would you rather construct a custom flight of rosés out on an open-air rooftop, with perfectly matched tapas? Or hey, why not try both?
BAR LEATHER APRON
Photo: Aaron Yoshino
FLOWERS FOR YOU
This drink’s name honors Tom Park’s mom, a florist in the same building.
Photo: Steve Czerniak
So here’s the question: Are you ready to plunk down almost an entire 20 spot for a single cocktail? On a Wednesday night? In Downtown Honolulu? What if we told you that it might just be the best cocktail you’ve ever had, and that it would come garnished with an intricate flower hand-cut from orange, lemon and lime rinds, and that the person behind the hand-crafted wood bar wearing a leather apron that he made himself is one of the best bartenders in the world?
The owners of recently opened boutique bar Bar Leather Apron are betting you’ll say yes.
Co-owner Tom Park says people are on the move, seeking out high-end goods, and that includes drinks.
“I think the importance of quality-crafted products has been a huge driving factor in all consumer-based business over the past 10 years,” he says. “You see it in retail, in professional services, and in restaurants and bars. People are willing to pay more for good quality and a story behind the product,” says Park, who also owns Leather Soul, a two-location store that sells premium leather shoes for men. “It’s not a draw because because it’s ‘high-end,’ per se, it’s about seeking out a great product and understanding the value in spending your hard-earned money on something like that.”
Park and his partner in Bar LA, world-champion (for real) bartender Justin Park (no relation to Tom), say they never doubted that their place would bring the crowds. And they were right not to worry. Reservations for Bar LA need to be made weeks in advance. People are lining up for an $18 mai tai that’s made with raisin-infused El Dorado 8-year-old rum, coconut water syrup, ‘ōhi‘a blossom honey and absinthe, and then smoked in a tiki-shaped box that was hand-carved by bartender Park.
“To be honest, we weren’t worried,” says Tom Park. “What we offer is an elevated experience—the service, attention to detail and a very high quality product in terms of ingredients, glassware and presentation. So really, we didn’t think a few dollars here and there would sway our potential guests.”
GET COZY: Bar stools not your vibe? Bar LA has an intimate lounge, too.
Photo: Aaron Yoshino
The buzz about Bar Leather Apron was loud from the earliest rumors that Justin Park, who’d established a serious following while tending bar at Chinatown’s Manifest, was going to open his own place with business partner Tom Park. Naturally, we couldn’t wait to get one of those signature award-winning mai tais in the Park boys’ cool new digs. And Bar LA really is cool. From the leather aprons that are the staff’s signature uniform to the custom wood furniture and leather-all-over seating to the uber chill jazz soundtrack, Bar LA is a small pocket of serious style—in decidedly unstylish surroundings. It lives on the awkward mezzanine level of the first floor of the Topa Financial Center at the makai end of Bishop Street.
Speakeasy-style gentlemen’s dens are definitely on point, especially when sitting at the seven-seat bar where Justin Park mixes up an exclusive list of cocktails for bar patrons (have we mentioned the mai tai?). Grab a seat in the tiny lounge that overlooks the ordinary goings-on of an urban high-rise, and it feels a little like sitting in a super fancy airport lounge where the poor coach plebes mill about in plain view while you hang upstairs with the rich and lucky. Despite its posh-on-top image, dropping a ton of cash for drinks isn’t a foregone conclusion.
You can get in and out for $30. But we suggest saving at another bar, because $18 isn’t too much to pay for the world’s best mai tai. And, if you can get the best cocktail you’ve ever had for $14, why wouldn’t you? (Ask for a Flowers For You. It’s perfection.)