Is O‘ahu Ready for the $18 Cocktail?
Two chic, new Downtown bars offer two very different visions of the perfect drink.
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.)
THE TCHIN TCHIN! BAR
Left: Inside the tchin tchin! bar, Right: PISCO PUNCH: This classic drink is one of eight cocktails on the menu.
Photo: Aaron Yoshino and Steve Czerniak
If an urban-swank rooftop bar with swag for days and a wine list a mile long is more your speed, The Tchin Tchin! Bar, in the old thirtyninehotel space, might be the bar for you.
This cool and ambient spot is the third great space from Dusty Grable and Jesse Cruz, after Lucky Belly and Livestock Tavern.
With a serious vision for urban growth and gentrification, Grable and Cruz are systematically making Chinatown a better place by simply building destinations that we can’t live without. They’re opening doors to places that make us want to rush in and hang out, and then go back again tomorrow.
In fact, we’re perfectly fine with forfeiting a happy hour bargain somewhere else in favor of sinking into an oversized booth with a glass of our new favorite wine: a super-bright Greek white, Skouros Moschofilero 2013, for which we will return time and time again.
The Tchin Tchin! Bar serves quality libations in this renovated space.
Photo: Aaron Yoshino
The wine menu ranges from 2-ounce pours of sparkling, white, red and rosé wines starting at $2 to about 20 full bottles that cost $100 or more including a bottle that goes for $300. (That’s for the 2011 Cardinale Cabernet Sauvignon.) The bar also serves quality cider and beer, ranging in price from $4 for a 12-ounce Birra Moretti to $15 for a 22-ounce glass of Big Island Brewhaus’ Red Sea of Cacao.
And though it’s primarily a wine and tapas bar, Tchin Tchin’s cocktail menu is short, but crafty. That is, like every other detail in the joint, the cocktails are mixed with serious intention—these are not your ordinary well drinks, and if that’s what you’re after, a more ordinary bar may be more your speed.
Like Bar LA, but with much less emphasis on the bartender-customer relationship (and hence, a lower price point), the cocktails here are a precise blend of some pretty fancy things, none of them cheap. The In The Mood, for example, is an impeccable balance of Raynal cognac, lime juice, egg white foam and pineapple-kiawe bitters. That’s top-shelf stuff—and it’s worth every dollar of its $10 price tag. The bartenders’ take on classic cocktails, like the Pisco Punch or the Vesper, also shows off their finesse behind the bar. We dare you to find another bar in town that can make an Americano this perfect. Because anything less would be doing Tchin Tchin’s addictive menu of small plate tapas a disservice.
Granted, our inclination for the kind of meals that include wine, cheese, cured meats and crusty bread may be informing our feelings, but even if we didn’t boast a strong love of charcuterie, it’s undeniable that Tchin Tchin has all the right stuff. With a solid menu of “small” and “smaller” plates for sharing, and a long list of wines on a direct-draw draft system that eliminates bottle spoilage, The Tchin Tchin! Bar is quickly becoming our go-to pau hana spot. Because our idea of a happy hour (or three) is a stinky grilled cheese sandwich, a schmear of fois gras pâté and oxtail rillettes on grilled bread, or a plate of escargot and mushrooms in a red wine demi glace. Home can wait.
Dissecting the Best Mai Tai
Here’s what $18 buys you.
E HO‘O PAU MAI TAI
2015 World’s Best Mai Tai winner.
Photo: Steve Czerniak
TOP-NOTCH LIQUOR: Raisin-infused El Dorado 8-year-old rum, spiced orgeat and a bit of absinthe.
NOT TOO SWEET: Add ‘ōhi‘a blossom honey.
PUT THE LIME AND THE COCONUT: A splash of coconut water syrup and lime.
THE TIKI TOUCH: Kiawe smoke tops it off.