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Let Me Tell You the Rules: Lessons from Harry’s Bar

Famed for being the birthplace of the Bellini, Harry’s Bar in Venice has developed an ethos all its own. Robert Simonson on the bar’s idiosyncratic drink-making techniques and its enduring appeal.

Harry’s Bar in Venice is not big. There is seating for maybe 30 people in the bar room and only six stools at the bar itself. Upstairs, I later learned, was a restaurant with a two-pronged reputation: criminally expensive and not very good. I didn’t care. I wouldn’t be dining.

Harry’s Bar had loomed large in my mind for 16 years, ever since my first trip to Venice. Returning to the city a decade and a half later as someone with a keen interest in bar culture, however, the tavern had new importance. It wasn’t just the most famous bar in Venice—it was one of the most celebrated bars in the world: the birthplace of the Bellini and the haunt of countless bold-faced names.

Despite my excitement at having finally crossed its threshold this past April, I’ll admit that my hopes weren’t especially high. It was a Cipriani joint, and as a New Yorker I had a dim view of the family empire. Cipriani, to me, meant price gouging, ostentation and tax evasion—its patrons typically sucker tourists or one-percenters with money to burn and zero taste. I expected a similar brand of pretentious rip-off in Venice.

But children do not always resemble the parent. McDonald’s, after all, was born of a hamburger joint in San Bernardino with an excellent reputation.

Cliché be damned, my companion and I started with Bellinis. A waiter in an immaculate white jacket absorbed our wishes with a nod and retreated. A teenager, obviously in training, scurried after him, taking notes with his eyes. Soon, another man placed a small glass bowl of large green olives before us.

In cocktail circles, it is accepted as a matter of faith that, if a bar is world-renowned for one drink, they probably execute that drink poorly. Reputation breeds apathy. If management knows every lemming who walks through your door is going to order a Bellini, why break your neck making them?

That is why the Bellinis, which arrived within minutes, were such a revelation. They were fluffy and light and delicious, a lovely rose color topped with a frothy head. But they weren’t served Mimosa-like, in a flute, as one might expect from such a drink. Instead, they came in a short cylinder, about four inches high—a vessel most Americans would identify as a juice glass.

I chalked the odd size to miserliness. But that wasn’t it.

The current cocktail revolution has given the world a plentitude of great places to drink, but has also created an overarching ethos about what constitutes a good bar. Bar owners, through internet chatter and travel, have absorbed the service, decor and drink ideas of their fellows so thoroughly that each new applejack cocktail doesn’t fall too far from the tree. Idiosyncrasy—not for its own sake, but backed up by an internal philosophy—is rare, and perhaps too much to ask, as it takes time to accrue and develop. Harry’s, I’d soon realize, wasn’t just another cocktail experience to add to the scrapbook; it was a lesson in understanding how a bar can appeal to all while stubbornly remaining its own thing.

After we’d finished our Bellinis, I ordered a Martini and my partner asked for a Rob Roy. The drinks landed on our table like visitors from a cocktail universe I didn’t recognize. Neither was in a Martini glass or coupe, as would have been the case in any sane bar in the Western world. Instead, the Rob Roy was in a rounded tumbler, the size and shape of a bathroom water glass—on ice. The Martini, meanwhile, was in what I can only call a shot glass—frost-covered and emblazoned with the Cipriani logo, and filled with about an ounce and a half of clear liquid and a lemon twist. (Whether there was even space for an olive was questionable.)

What sort of “Martini” was this? I expected the drink to be punishingly dry; a place like Harry’s was sure to be stuck in the drinking styles of the 1950s—its heyday. And it was. Dry as a bone. What I didn’t expect was for this thimble of gin to be delicious, but it was one of the finest Martinis I’ve ever had.

The Rob Roy was another story. The religion of dryness, it turns out, was applied to all cocktails at Harry’s. A good drink was a drink that eschewed sugar and distrusted vermouth. This was no exception. It sat unfinished, but I had to admire Harry’s for calling the drink like it saw it. The cocktail didn’t represent a mistake; it was a decision.

A Continental Crowd

Giuseppe Cipriani, a Veronese who had bartended at the nearby Hotel Europa, opened Harry’s Bar in 1931 in a former warehouse. He named it after Harry Pickering, an American who gave him the seed money. At the time, if you wanted class and cocktails in Venice, you went to a hotel bar. Harry’s was an anomaly, but it nonetheless became a destination watering hole for the cultural jet set: Noel Coward, Orson Welles, Barbara Hutton, Truman Capote, Peggy Guggenheim and, most famously, Ernest Hemingway. Papa even set some scenes in his novel Across the River and Into the Trees in the bar.

Today, there are certainly celebrity sightings at Harry’s, but not celebrity regulars. Still, Harry’s does have regulars. On our second visit, I noticed that, around 5 p.m., the tables full of antsy, casually dressed tourists would evaporate. And, with each new turn of the revolving door, they were replaced by nattily dressed men and women greeted with familiarity by the staff. There were hats and ascots, jackets of fine weave and dresses of simple but elegant cut. Some settled in for drinks at the bar, where conversation was lively. Others conducted business at side tables, or tried to entertain nieces, nephews, daughters and sons. One man, who looked like a film producer, was charming a starlet, his phone plugged into a nearby outlet. It was what one imagines is meant by the phrase, “a Continental crowd.”

I ordered a Gin Fizz; my companion chose a Negroni. Every drink in the room, which was now about 35-strong, was made by a single bartender—a mid-sized man of solid build with close-cropped, salt-and-pepper hair and thick-framed black glasses. He reminded me a bit of Peter Sellers as the actor looked in some of his films of the 1960s—very Clare Quilty. He worked unsmilingly with a fierce, quiet seriousness. Waiters approached him with wary deference.

Both of our drinks came in round-bottomed tumblers similar to the one that had held the Rob Roy. The Negroni was built to form; the Gin Fizz was dry as the Sahara. As I sipped it, I noticed the bartender pull out a large, heavy-footed, glass pitcher and place it on the bar. Retrieving a bottle of Tanqueray gin from the fridge, he opened it and upended it above the pitcher. A very large order for Martinis had just come in, I guessed. But no. Once the bottle was spent and the pitcher full, a staff member whisked it away into the next room.

The mysteries kept piling up.

A Look Inside Harry's Bar

Our third table, on the following night, was even closer to the bar than our two previous tables had been. (The large tips we’d been leaving seemed to be working.) Olives and croquettes arrived, alongside grilled ham-and-cheese sandwiches. The bald man in a black suit that we’d encountered on night one—whose position in the hierarchy was unclear, but who possessed a unwavering hauteur—still had an expression that would have wilted daisies, but I could detect a hairline fracture in his facade. Progress.

We ordered two Daiquiris, a drink I wasn’t especially hopeful that Harry’s had mastered; Venice was on the Adriatic, not the Caribbean, after all. They arrived in the usual tumblers, on the rocks, with a sugared rim—the latter of which is, to me, visual shorthand for “bad cocktail.” But here, the sugared rim represented smart drink-building: the Daiquiri was dry, adhering to Harry’s style, the sugared rim adding the necessary sweetness. It was an oddity to be sure, but it was near-perfect.

What was this Daiquiri doing here inside a bunker-like bar inches from a fleet of bobbing gondolas? Harry’s didn’t need to make a Daiquiri this good, this principled, this sui generis. But, it was abundantly clear now: Harry’s kept its own counsel, cocktail-wise.

I watched Peter Sellers bang out dozens of Bellinis at a time, pouring them out in a line the way they make Pimm’s Cups at the Napoleon House in New Orleans or Irish Coffees at the Buena Vista Café in San Francisco. Nobody engaged him in idle chit-chat—he wasn’t that sort of bartender. He had that bygone, effortless professional dignity that so many of today’s young bartenders chase after but rarely capture. He was both an artist at work and a conscientious laborer; on both counts, he had the respect of his colleagues and patrons.

By watching Sellers with intent I was catching verses of Harry’s anthem here and there, but the bridges still alluded me. The vast majority of bars function fairly similarly, drawing on operational practices that are decades, sometimes centuries, old. I heard echoes of those practices in Sellers’ motions. Yet, it was also clear that Harry’s followed its own tune, and that that song—that Martini, that Daiquiri—had been authored long ago. It would take one more visit to suss out its secrets.

Nowhere Else on Planet Earth

Our travels would take us away from Venice for five nights, but upon our return we made a beeline back to Harry’s. Peter Sellers was again behind the stick. A single seat at the bar was open and we seized our opportunity; my companion claimed the stool while I hovered about until a second came free.

From our ringside seat, we ordered a round of Daiquiris—the drink that had confounded me since our last visit. The bartender dipped the glasses in sugar and set them aside while he reached for a bottle of Brugal Especial Extra Dry white rum, a prosaic-enough brand. He then freely poured two ounces into a metal tin, added ice, fresh juice—lemon, not the usual lime—and two teaspoons of raw sugar.

Then came the curve ball: He did not hand-shake the drink. The tin went under a small, ancient Hamilton Beach mixer at the corner of the bar—the sort you see in old soda fountains. He let it blend for 15 seconds, then switched the machine off and poured the frothy mix into the waiting glasses. The unorthodox method—somewhere between a classic, straight-up Daiquiri and a frozen one—was not what I expected.

That revelation paled, however, when, from the back room, a worker appeared with a tray of small glasses, each filled with clear liquid. They were the same kind of glass my Martini had come in—the purpose of that pitcher of gin suddenly apparent. Sellers put the tray into a refrigerated compartment beneath the bar. Later, when a waiter called for a Martini, he opened the fridge and pulled out a single glass. He then carefully ladled a bar spoon of dry vermouth on the surface of the drink, gave it a brief stir, added a lemon twist and placed it on the bar for the waiter to collect.

I can confidently say that nowhere else on planet Earth is a Martini made this way.

Months later, I got in touch with someone at Harry’s Bar to clear up a few unanswered questions. The bar uses lemon juice instead of lime in their Daiquiris because that is what Giuseppe Cipriani did. (In the 1930s, limes were hard to come by in Venice.) The house rum for Daiquiris had been Havana Club 3-year-old for decades, but the management ultimately switched to Brugal because American patrons objected to the Cuban rum. They’ve since switched back.

As for that Daiquiri, I asked Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, the tiki drink scholar, if he had ever heard of one being made the Harry’s way. He said the trailblazing tiki bar Don The Beachcomber’s employed a similar practice, blending Daiquiris with a Hamilton Beach, and then straining out the shards of ice when pouring into a glass. That’s not saying that Harry’s took its lead from Don The Beachcomber’s, but both bars did first flower in the 1930s.

The Martini recipe, meanwhile, is 15 parts gin to one part Martini Extra Dry vermouth. That super-dry ratio is known as a Montgomery, named after British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, who, it is said, preferred 15-to-1 odds when going into battle. The Montgomery formula was a favorite of Hemingway, who pushed it on the Harry’s staff in 1945, after World War II ended. And the tiny glasses? They are employed because Harry’s was determined from the very first to deliver cocktails as cold as possible—not an easy feat in the 1930s and 1940s. Thus, small glassware, which kept the drink colder, longer.

After a couple of hours perched at the bar, we paid our bill and left the requisite tip, even though we had no idea when we would return. I used what little Italian I had to thank the bartender. He responded by placing his palms together and offering a slight bow—as fine an acknowledgement as we could have hoped for.

Nearly a year later, I still think about Harry’s frequently. I got most of my specific reporter questions answered, but the unknowable enigma of the whole remains. What makes a great bar? Is it fame? Is it excellent drinks? Is it attentive service? Is it atmosphere? Surely, all of these play a role. And, just as surely, Harry’s had them in spades.

But that wasn’t why Harry’s impinged itself upon my skeptical mind. It won my respect because it knew what it was about. The bar takes its lead from no one. It has personality and principles. And those two qualities carry the day, if a bar of lasting value and enjoyment is what you’re after. It’s a bar that embodies that rare combination of “Come into my arms, let me embrace you,” followed by, “Now, if you want to stay, let me tell you the rules.”

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