How do you build on and expand a successful bar, without it becoming either a pastiche of its original self, or worse, a chain?
The business school approach is to develop a strong brand identity, which makes subsequent incarnations identifiable without being copies of the original concept. In other words: keep the same look and feel but change the name!
It’s very simple in principle, but very difficult to execute. One group that has pulled off this trick better than others is Drake & Morgan – the team that brought London The Refinery on Bankside, The Parlour in Canary Wharf, and in the City, The Anthologist, The Folly, and The Drift. Their latest, The Happenstance, is in the increasingly popular social destination around St Paul’s.
As with their other venues, The Happenstance is easy on the eye. In the bar you have statement chandeliers, a distressed display cabinet holding bottles of Champagne, wine and spirits, and a quirky bar with a vintage filing cabinet frontage. The main dining room is all exposed ceilings, reclaimed timber flooring, teal pendant lighting, and long sharing benches or booth-style seating. The diners are very City – all suited and booted – and mostly male. It’s like a Corney and Barrow made fashionable. Unlike its sister venues, the actual bar is relatively small in relation to the dining area. Which, as you might expect, makes it feel more like a proper restaurant than a bar with an eating area. A good thing, in my book.
The food template remains the same, with the menu a mix of sharing plates and boards, salads, designer sandwiches and burgers, and with most mains priced around the £10 mark, is very good value. (Especially given the area.) The small plate starter combination of salmon ceviche with orange, coriander and chili, prosciutto, crostini with truffle honey, tempura crispy squid and prawn popcorn was very good indeed. Of the mains, nothing particularly stood out, save for the roast lamb, which was served pink and perfectly seasoned. The extensive wine and cocktail list – and we were spoilt by the charming sommelier throughout our dinner – was rounded off by a delicious dessert cocktail. Previously I had never quite understood these drinks, and dismissed them as a fad that was destined to go the route of 'fusion Thai/Italian pizza'. That was before I tried the salted caramel milkshake consisting of Vince’s $5 shake (yes, as in Pulp Fiction) with bullet bourbon, salted caramel, vanilla ice cream, and milk and chocolate bitters. This was heaven in a glass, and put all of the preceding drinks (and eats) into its shadow.
The Happenstance is a good little bar, with a better and bigger restaurant to the rear, and is a welcome addition to its locale. The group of bars is starting to feel a little bit ‘samey’ to me – with everything looking and feeling like it does at its sister venues. But perhaps that’s a consequence of the fact that it’s my job to visit all these places. Perhaps it's inevitable when you expand a winning formula. Perhaps it's testimony to D&M’s ability to build a bar brand.