How Cocktail Bars Are Borrowing Each Others’ Style

From iconic floors to signature glassware, the same bar design elements are popping up around the world thanks to traveling bartenders who look to their peers for inspiration. Robert Simonson on the cocktail world's sincerest form of flattery.

Glass, a cocktail bar that opened in 2012 in the surging Paris nightlife neighborhood of Pigalle, has a number of things to recommend it: cocktails on tap, DJs and an appealingly dive-y, hot-dogs-and-beer aesthetic. Chances are, though, after your first visit you’ll remember just one thing: the floor. Lit from beneath, triangles of dirty white, gray and blue flash on and off, looking like the shards of a discotheque caught in wartime crossfire.

If you are a cocktail fan with some years on you, that floor may remind you of another — one that held up a New York City bar called Passerby for a decade, until it closed in 2008. Apart from the bar’s charmingly cantankerous owner, Toby Cecchini, that tongue-in-cheek Saturday Night Fever-like floor was Passerby’s most memorable calling card. Anyone who went there remembers it. Certainly, Adam Tsou did. He worked there as a bartender for two years and when he relocated to Paris and opened Glass, he brought a piece of Passerby with him.

“My experience there was singular, unforgettable and crazy,” said Tsou of Passerby. “It was a maddening merry-go-round of personalities, music, art and debauchery. When my partners and I first talked about opening Glass in Paris, it was an itch that needed to be scratched.”

David Kaplan, too, recalls Passerby fondly. He was a patron long before he founded Death & Co. and became a partner in Proprietors LLC, which owns bars on both coasts. When he opened the disco-bar Honeycut in Los Angeles in 2013, an homage to Passerby seemed apt.

“I loved the art-house vibe of Passerby,” recalled Kaplan. “When we were creating Honeycut — especially the early days when it just lived within the mood-board phase — it had this ridiculous house-party feel, like going in to a party/disco room in some absurd mansion. Honeycut the idea was silly, fun — it was that place that could make anyone dance. The analog floor was a big part of that.”

The 21st-century cocktail bartender’s mind is a backward-looking one, obsessed with the past, even if be the recent past. Simultaneously, that same bartender’s life is peripatetic, much more so than was the case for bartenders in the past. Cocktail competitions and brand-sponsored trips take mixologists to Singapore one day, San Francisco the next. Today, a bartender with a sheaf of press clippings can easily hit five continents in two or three years. Along the way, curiosity devours ideas and details like a DustBuster, belching out the intel back at home base. Much of that information takes liquid form; this is why modern cocktail creations like the Bramble, Penicillin and Gin-Gin Mule have girdled the globe in record time. But bartenders and bar owners also take note of attractive and useful design elements, later implementing them at their own bars.

Sasha Petraske has often testified that many of the defining characteristics of Milk & Honey — no standing, rules of etiquette, custom ice — were taken from Angel’s Share, the Japanese-styled, second-floor speakeasy in the East Village. Given Petraske’s status as one of cocktaildom’s old guard, it could be said, then, that borrowing design elements is built into the very bones of the cocktail movement.

Such borrowings began early in the cocktail movement. In 1996, when Keith McNally opened Pravda, the subterranean vodka bar on Lafayette Street in Manhattan was an immediate hit. Little did the Martini-gulping Wall Streeters that filled the place realize, the smart white jackets the bartenders wore were patterned after those at Schumann’s American Bar, a legendary cocktail den in Munich. McNally had visited Schumann’s and remembered the outfits.

Pravda produced most of the principal players who, in 2003, opened Employees Only. Those pupils learned from their master well. When it came time for them to choose their bartender uniforms, they went with smart white jackets as well. But EO reached further back than Schumann’s for inspiration, to a drawing of a jacket in How to Mix Drinks, the seminal cocktail book published by Jerry Thomas in 1862. EO’s undulated bar itself, however, consciously imitated the sloping lines of Pravda’s.

Jacob Briars, the global advocacy director for Bacardi, is on board a plane as often as not. As such, he is well placed to observe design motifs as they hop from bar to bar. Ask him to name a few examples, and he’ll easily tick off a few, from the bungee-cord-suspended bottles first seen at Der Raum, the influential Melbourne bar (now seen at Smile Tree in Turin, among other places) to the golden pineapple-shaped vessels employed by bars such as ZZ’s Clam Bar in New York to Artesian in London.

Briars is quick to note that such contagious borrowing goes on in almost every creative field, from architecture to the tech world — some of it openly acknowledged, much of it not. Still, he said, the stylistic lifts in the bar world derive from specific reasons.

“A few major cities set the trends,” he said. “Opening a bar anywhere in the U.S.? You might as well fly to New York and check out the scene and see what you can take back to New England or New Mexico, or even to New South Wales or New Zealand, for that matter. Effectively, many people are drinking from the same well when it comes to researching their new opening.” He added that the cocktail industry is a highly social one, where ideas are widely shared. Globetrotting brand ambassadors see things all over the world and then tell people about them.

Another contributing factor, he added, is that “many aspiring and current bar owners are of the age when they are afflicted by wanderlust, so they travel widely and pick up inspiration from everywhere.”

Examples of that could include the large silver chalice, filled with crushed ice and spiked with upturned coupes, that sits atop the bar at ZZ’s Clam Bar. Bar director Thomas Waugh admits to having stolen that feature wholesale from Bix, a stylish retro supper club in San Francisco, the city where Waugh cut his teeth as a bartender. Another is the jade-hued marble absinthe fountain at Maison Premiere in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It is a near-exact replica of one owner Joshua Boissy saw in the Olde Absinthe House in New Orleans’ French Quarter.

The biggest example of a traveling cocktail bar motif is certainly the secret entrance. All-but-unmarked portals have defined the personalities of important bars in New York (PDT),  San Francisco (Bourbon & Branch), Chicago (Violet Hour), Los Angeles (The Varnish), London (Nightjar, Happiness Forgets), Paris (Candelaria, Experimental Cocktail Club), Hamburg (Le Lion) and Sydney and Melbourne (almost every bar). For these and many other hard-to-find bars, we can thank the original Milk & Honey, where owner Sasha Petraske turned studied anonymity into a religion within the cocktail world.

Petraske himself was no virgin to swiping stylistic elements from others. He has often testified that many of the defining characteristics of Milk & Honey — no standing, rules of etiquette, custom ice — were taken from Angel’s Share, the Japanese-styled, second-floor speakeasy in the East Village. Given Petraske’s status as one of cocktaildom’s old guard, it could be said, then, that borrowing design elements is built into the very bones of the cocktail movement.

Sometimes, in fact, the thieves get stolen from. The low ceiling at Death & Co., composed of long pieces of dark wood, is a tribute to a similar ceiling Kaplan know from a restaurant in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. PDT, which opened only a few months after D&Co., and is located only two blocks away, drafted off that ceiling, taking a herringbone approach.

Some of these more-or-less friendly thefts are irksome to the people who feel they originated the idea. Other victims take a more philosophical approach.

Toby Cecchini has been to neither Glass nor Honeycut, and he found out about their flashing floors through second parties. “When I contacted them, in both instances, they kind of sheepishly made jokes about imitation being the sincerest form of flattery,” he said. “But what can you do, trademark a floor?”

“I don’t know what Piotr Uklanski, the Polish artist who designed the floor at Passerby, would say, but I think he’d likely be flattered,” Cecchini continued. “I therefore choose to take the same tack. Having lost Passerby to the vicissitudes of New York real estate, I’m cheered that people recall it fondly enough to imitate some element of it.”