‘The World’s Best Bar’ is in Dublin with a residency at the Westbury hotel from 28 September to 2 October. Having visited the recent Dead Rabbit pop-up at Claridge’s in London, consider the following to be a few words of warning for Dublin’s cocktail aficionados.
“Not being funny, mate, but I’m not gonna pay £14 for a scotch egg. Would you?”
If I was minded to subtitle this review of the Dead Rabbit pop-up at Claridge’s in August this year, that would probably be the quote I’d use. Headline:
“Dead Rabbit @ Claridge’s 2017: The Tale of the £14 Scotch Egg”.
Of course what this straight-talking punter failed to take into account was that the menu price didn’t include the 12.5% ‘discretionary’ service charge, so his scotch egg would have come in at a cool £15.75. You can buy scotch eggs in Fortnum & Masons (where they were invented). They’re £3.50, and the Queen shops there.
Even if Her Majesty had dipped into her handbag and splashed out a purple note with her face on it for this scotch egg, she’s unlikely to have enjoyed much of her visit to the Dead Rabbit at Claridge’s. Not least because she’s famously not much of a Guinness drinker, and they wouldn’t have gone off menu to mix her a gin and Dubonnet.
As for the rest of us who have to pay out of our own pockets, well, there was plenty to criticise, so let’s begin.
I had arrived earlier than my guest, so waited in the sweatbox of the taproom. I have to admit that I’m not that familiar with the floor plan of Claridge’s so I can only assume that this is usually a broom cupboard or an anteroom (an anteroom is the sort of thing they have in high-end hotels, right?). Either way, it was tiny, atmospheric sure, but hotter than a cheese toastie.
I stood at the bar and had a pint of Guinness. The blackboard on the wall had forewarned me that this would set me back £8. I was charged £9 though because of the aforementioned ‘discretionary’ service charge of 12.5%.
Now the use of the word ‘discretionary’ when applied to a service charge is one of the egregious sins of the hospitality business. It serves as much kinship with its dictionary definition as the word ‘kind’ in ‘kind reminder’ in the subject line of a chaser email. It’s basically a ballsy way of saying, ‘we bet you don’t have the nerve to complain, so we’re sticking it on and backing ourselves’.
It is of course nowhere near discretionary at the best of times, especially to the frightfully nice, scared to complain British customer. But it is even less discretionary when you’re not handed a bill, and the full price is already tapped into the card machine. “Contactless ok, mate?”
I paid the £9. This was, after all, the genuine article: Guinness shipped from Dublin specifically for the Dead Rabbit. But then all Guinness in London is made in Dublin. It has been since Diageo closed the Park Royal brewery in 2005. So the £4.90 ‘best Guinness in London’ at the Coach & Horses was also made in Dublin. Just like, obviously, the ‘eye-watering’ €6.50 pints in Temple Bar are made in Dublin.
So what was I paying for?
The expert service? I mean there were two gen-u-ine Irish lads behind the bar pouring the pints, and they knew their stuff. I could tell this because from my spot at the bar I heard them giving a crash course in Guinness pouring to a red-shirted waiter who was going to cover their break for them: “pour up to the line above Guinness and leave it to settle, a bit, top up and ask for £9” they might have said. In fact, they did apart from the last part. I had more training when I started working in a south London O’Neill’s back in 2005. We charged £2.60 for a Guinness, and you got a choice between regular and extra cold and a shamrock drawn on the top. Best not go there though, wars have been fought over less.
So was it the classic tulip glass? The Rabbit PR team made a point of telling us how hard they’d worked to get these for Claridge’s – the last three boxes in the UK no less. It makes the Guinness taste better they say. But if it does, why did Diageo switch to the gravity glass?
In any event, the £9 Guinness was a perfectly serviceable pint of the black stuff but I wouldn’t write home about it, even if my home was in Dublin. In fact, especially if my home was in Dublin.
The taproom bar also had a couple of other extortionate options for spending your hard-earned, so perhaps unsurprisingly, the main topic of conversation seemed to be the prices. One couple next to me visibly winced when they were charged £36 for two Irish coffees, and a teacup of punch was going for £19 (+ service).
I’ll leave those thoughts with you now, as our table is ready and we’re about to move through to the parlour, but don’t in any way imagine that I begrudge the hardworking staff their 12.5%, even for bar service (some NY habits don’t die on a transatlantic flight, eh?). But really, who comes up with the idea of an £8 pint in the first place?
To the parlour then. Here your choice is from a menu of £19 cocktails. Just for reference, the cocktails at the original Rabbit are $16 (plus service of course) — which is what, £12? And there you’re paying for the development time and Manhattan rent, and service means someone making the drink from scratch and someone else bringing it to your table.
So why the markup? I assume that part of the problem was an agreement with Claridge’s not to ‘undercut’ their bar (list cocktails £18), but why? It’s a week-long pop-up getting punters who wouldn’t normally visit the hotel through the door. Surely the extensive PR and the extra bums on seats are worth a wee discount?
But, I’m not fixated on the prices. Not really. I mean this is a one-off treat. You’ll pay what you’ll pay and maybe Team DR knew this, maybe they didn’t. No, it’s not just the prices, other things were a let down too.
The hostess led us to a seat at the bar. Normally the best seat in the house. Especially in the original Rabbit where you can stare in wonder at the massive selection of bitters and tinctures on the front bar. Not so in Claridge’s though. Here it just made it clear that the staff were reading off crib sheets. Fine, I guess. It’s a week-long pop-up, I assume many of them were temps or regular Claridge’s staff, they probably didn’t have much time to learn the drinks. It’s not like they’d had months to plan the whole thing…
Anyway, this is a cocktail bar review, so how were the drinks? Well, they showed the same rich balance of flavour, adventurism and bite as those you would receive in the original bar. My Psycho Killer (whiskey, Campari, banana liqueur, white cacao and absinthe) had a hint of sweet, rounded banana and chocolate which was just enough to take the edge off the Campari. S’s first drink, the Point Blank (gin, vermouth, falernum, melon, cucumber and camomile) was a little bland, drowned in the water and low flavour content of the melon and cucumber, with the spice of the falernum unable to make itself heard.
For the second round, I chose the Birthday Suit (whiskey, Cocchi Americano, camomile, lemon and absinthe) which was sharper than anticipated, and not as much as an anaesthetic as one might have imagined from the camomile. S tried to ask for a Corpse Reviver #2 (a clear sign she doesn’t think much of the menu) but was rebuffed.
“Everything’s pre-mixed,” the barman told us.
Sorry? What’s with the crib sheet then? Ok, so presumably pre-mixed from more than one bottle. Batched if you will. I’ve done that before for hotel bars, but erm, not for ones in £510 a night hotel featuring ‘the best bar in the world’ for one week only.
In any event, S opted for the Cut and Dry (rum, curacao, passion berry, sumac, lime and habanero bitters); it had a little more spice and complexity than her first but wasn’t a world beater and we went home for a whiskey.
So, what’s the conclusion? I can make excuses for the complexities of trying to recreate a bar 3,500 miles from home; fitting it into a confined and predetermined space, and having to recruit staff at short notice. But what is the value of a Dead Rabbit pop up if only one of the bar staff makes the trip, and the rest of the party is the owners and the PR team? Why not focus on the drinks and service rather than the Insta stories of their plush bedrooms and nice breakfasts?
So next stop Dublin. Don’t imagine we’ll be seeing a €10.26 Guinness there, but do we think the Rabbit has got too big for its boots? Not that I’d say it to his face mind you.
Dead Rabbit @ Claridge’s
Brook Street, London, W1 (only 15-22 August 2017)
Drinks: 8 (for the ones the could make)
Value for Money: 0
Price: Cocktails £19 + 12.5% ‘discretionary’ service charge, y’all have a nice day now.