Speakeasies, how they’re different from bars, and the best ones in the world

Photo credit: 
Sushant Sinha
Binge's picture
May 30, 2017
[Inside: Speakeasy recommendations in New York, Paris and London + expert validation of the Andhra Bhavan in New York.]

Binge’s Founder speaks to the restaurateur behind some of Delhi’s most successful names like PCO, ATM, Ping’s, and now Paparazzi and PDA. Rakshay Dhariwal, Co-founder of Passcode Hospitality, chats with Vritti Bansal about what it takes to run a successful speakeasy, what it's like to be ahead of one’s time in business and what he admires about the food scene in Delhi.

A lot of people have interviewed you before this, Rakshay. Is there anything you haven’t told anyone so far?

I’m pretty open and honest; I wear my heart on my sleeve and I always just blurt out whatever I feel. No real secrets, but there’s one thing I might not have mentioned before. Part of the reason I went into hospitality is that when I was very young, my dad used to work for Pepsi, so we used to travel around a lot, for years. There’d be a new city and I’d have to stay in hotels for about six months until we could find a house. So I just got very used to the whole room service aspect, dining in restaurants and becoming friends with the staff at the hotel. I guess hospitality’s always resonated with me.

We’ve spoken before about people taking time to warm up to something new. Everything Passcode does is very novel to Delhi. Have you seen people being resistant to things you do?

People weren’t at all resistant to PCO; they loved it. I think it was just the right timing—speakeasies worldwide were getting so much acclaim that when we launched PCO, people jumped onto the bandwagon very quickly.

ATM has been slightly more challenging because time and time again, private members clubs shut down. So I think people find it hard to say, “okay, this one will stand the test of time. They won’t sell a bunch of memberships and then close their doors,” which is what happened with the “Hypes” and the “Laps” and stuff like that. The perception is that you’re either a solid, recognised Gymkhana, or membership cannot work for you. We’re trying to prove that wrong and we maybe were a couple of years ahead of our time with ATM. But I think it’s definitely catching up and 2017 has been quite good for us.

Excellent. How do you think it’s different running a speakeasy here rather than somewhere else in the world? I think PCO’s the only one in Delhi?

I think AD [Singh] tried his hand at it with Dirty Martini. Yet, there were no barriers to entrance—you could just walk through from Olive. Someone who used to work for me started one very close to PCO, in fact. Not sure how that’s doing. There was one more: Priyank [Sukhija] had opened one in Hauz Khas village called Chamanlal & Sons. Again, I never ended up going there. There were two that opened in Bombay: The Local by AD Singh, which I think was geared towards college students, and then there was PDT, which again, shut down.

So, yeah, it’s quite challenging. I think it all boils down to finances. It boils down to “how much money can I make”. When you go into the project thinking “I’m not making money, let’s shut it down”, you don’t really care about the kind of mixologist you have, or the kind of ingredients you’re putting into your cocktails, why are you trying to do a speakeasy? Don’t. Say, “I’m a bar”. Say “we’ve got certain speakeasy influences.” But don’t go all out and say “there will be jazz and it will be dapper” and this and that, and then you don’t care about the cocktails that you serve. The whole point of a speakeasy is a place where you can get excellent cocktails. That is the primary focus of any speakeasy. Name any one, from Milk & Honey to any other around the world. The number one thing that all speakeasies have in common is fantastic drinks. No matter how beautifully you design the place or what deals you offer, if you fail on the drinks aspect, people aren’t going to walk in.

What city in the world do you think has the strongest speakeasies?

New York. I like the ones in Paris but they’re not as many. But the product in Paris is also very good. It’s more evolved than the New York palate, especially considering the cocktails I had there at The Experimental Cocktail Club, and then at PDT in New York or other NY speakeasies. It’s very subjective, but for me at least, Paris has better quality and New York has better quantity.

Quality in terms of …?

The quality of the mixologist to the ingredients that they use, and the drinks that they come up with. I thought Paris was more evolved.

What’s your opinion of speakeasies in London?

I haven’t done a deep speakeasy dive in London. I’ve just casually been to a couple here and there. I wouldn’t want to comment on something I don’t know. In New York, I’ve been to pretty much all of them, as I have to the ones in Paris and other random cities in Europe. London? I actually haven’t been there in four years.

Well, they have a Milk & Honey. I’m not sure if it’s the same one as New York …

It is, yes.

And also The Experimental Cocktail Club …

Yes. Again, the same chain. I think it was started in London and the second outlet was in Paris. If they’re that good in Paris, I’m sure their founding one in London is even better.

What’s your favourite city in terms of food?

I hate to jump back to New York for everything, but they’ve got every sort of cuisine. Be it Ethiopian, or regional Indian. I mean—they’ve got an Andhra Bhavan. New York is such a vast market. Also, New Zealand has really good food. The produce you get there—from the quality of the meats to the dairy—is just top notch. But again, nothing quite like New York because you can get everything, from anywhere, at all times. So yeah, probably New York.

I know this is a loaded question, but what do you think of the food scene in Delhi?

It’s evolved a lot. I can pretty much get whatever I want; I’m very happy with all the restaurants that we’ve got. I think Bombay’s playing the catch-up game now; they’re trying to give us a run for our money. But Delhi’s great, food-wise. Little gems like En in Mehrauli and even Lavash. These are good restaurants. Good chefs are doing good things. I happened to eat Priyam [Chatterjee]’s food the other day at Qla; he’s a very talented fellow.

We’re getting a lot of good chefs who’ve worked in the Nomas of the world, coming back here and starting restaurants. It’s really encouraging to see that. I haven’t been to Bukhara in two-and-a-half years. And that’s how I know something’s right. When you don’t need to go back to a Bukhara or an Indian Accent because there’s so much else to choose from. I mean, there’s Chor Bizarre at Bikaner House now, which is the next on my list of places to go.

There’s only a handful of people who care solidly about quality because it’s very easy to make money in this industry. Generally, what happens is: you start a place, you’ve got seven different cuisines and DJ nights, and you make your money. No one’s really sitting down and being “a restaurateur”. They’re only interested in chalao-ing a night space or something like that. But there’s a group of cool, young, passionate restaurateurs out there who’re really doing good things. 

Would you like to name some favourites?

I'm really impressed with Kainaz [Contractor] and Rahul [Dua]. They're excellent at what they do. I really admire what Arjun [Sagar Gupta] is doing with The Piano Man. The Ivy & Bean guys from Shahpur Jat have a new place called Fig & Maple. I haven't been there but they must be doing something right since they've pretty much gone viral. Another place I haven't been but am dying to go is Leo's. I've heard the best things about them; it's a young guy who trained in Italy, I believe, who comes in and makes all the pizzas himself. One of my personal favourites is Meherwan Bawa, who does artisanal meats. Also the Grub Fest guys.

People who understand food and know about it trying to set up good products that other people would appreciate is all that matters.