The Old Man: Hong Kong
37 Aberdeen Street, Central. SoHo, Central, Hong Kong
By Kate Shelton, Guest Writer
The Place: An Ernest Hemingway-themed speakeasy, well-hidden except for the millennial squads waiting out front. But a party of 1? Come right in.
The Time: I arrive at 9:30pm on Saturday May 11th and am not surprised the bar is full; every place I pass on my way over is spilling out onto the streets so that walking down Staunton Street, I’m dodging more bros than cars. Businessmen in Bermuda shorts are reveling in the absence of any open container laws and women in heels are fighting the good fight against Hong Kong’s steep and uneven sidewalks. None of this is my scene, but The Old Man was recommended by my Very Beautiful, Very Trendy, Very Well Traveled dancer friends, so I brave the nightlife in search of a haven away from the drunken herd.
The Vibe: The doorman, Kobi, illuminates a staircase down into the alley and the hostess ushers me into the dimly lit, one room bar (if I was in NYC we would call it “cozy”), decorated with bottles of cocktail ingredients with hand-written labels, ranging from “mezcal” to “respect.” The room is split in half: three tables in the back where groups are seated, while couples and singles gather around the communal bar up front. The bar itself is beautiful: dark wood in the shape of The Old Man’s logo, people sitting on all sides, facing their neighbors, conversations bleeding into one another. Instead of coasters, glasses rest on a chilled copper strip that runs down the center of the bar (as if anyone’s drink lives long enough to get warm), creating a picture-perfect lineup of colorful concoctions. And at the end of the bar, a dynamic bartending duo are working against a backdrop of Mr. Hemingway’s imposing gemstone portrait.
The hostess encourages me to walk straight up to the bartender - that’s right, not the bar, the bartender. While I’m picking my way through the crowd, she’s having a silent, signed conversation with the rest of her team above the din of voices so that when I arrive, the bartender, Mandeep (@grgmandp101), greets me like an old friend. He knows I’m going stag tonight and that I’ve never been here before, so he’s ready to go over the menu and has even made standing room so I have a front row seat to the creation of my first cocktail. No sooner has Mandeep put a drink in my hand than one of the servers catches my attention – he’s been holding a stool for me. If chivalry includes finding me a seat in a packed bar, let’s go ahead and bring it back.
The crowd here is casual and comfortable - jeans, hoodies, sneakers; there’s really no dress code. I’m also dressed for comfort in something that might be interpreted as a galactic-themed dress or giant superhero cape. Wear whatever you want, just make sure your outfit is Insta-ready since the close quarters mean you’ll likely be featured in several peoples’ stories, as I’m sure I will be tonight.
The bar snack is salt and vinegar chips, which I use as a delicious implement for friend-making and strategically share them with new neighbors as a conversation starter. Language is no barrier since English is the one primarily floating around - not surprising since TOM is an homage to an American expat literary legend, located in one of the most Western neighborhoods in Hong Kong. The servers catch on fast and make sure fresh bowls of chips keep arriving at my side. My new communal bar friends include:
a married couple from Sydney/France waiting for their dinner reservation
a vacationing couple from Manila/Sweden visiting Hong Kong for the first time
a woman who seems to be a regular here, and assures me our carrot infused cocktails are nutritionally counterbalancing the salt & vinegar chips
Two men enter and up the IG game by pulling out a full size Nikon to photograph their cocktails; without missing a beat the bartenders pull out their own phones, open up the flashlights, and set them under the glasses to showcase the drinks for the photo op. The effect is stunning and suddenly everyone has their phones out (including yours truly); we all want to order the emerald green drink that could be an elixir straight out of Wicked. The newcomers start chatting with the bartenders and soon tequila shots are being passed around; Mandeep makes a point of including me in their toast. What are we toasting to? No idea, but the men with the Nikon are seated next to me and I use my Friend-Chips to get their life stories. They’re bartenders, from Italy by way of London, who fell in love with the newly opened sister bar in Singapore, also named The Old Man, and have come here chasing the experience and some new cocktails. If, like me, you think it might be just a little over the top to fly to Hong Kong for a speakeasy, I find out the next day that The Old Man has been named the #1 Bar in Asia for 2019. So yeah, maybe worth the flight!
The Bartenders: This may be a literary themed bar, but don’t expect to debate the merits of Hemingway’s unadorned writing style with the bartenders. Mandeep and Yvonne (@yvonne_pi_chan) are incredibly friendly and entertaining, but also up to their muscle-y biceps in cocktail shakers, flaming bits of paper and hand-carved ice cubes. They keep the vibe exciting by literally slinging cocktail shakers back and forth, occasionally enlisting the help of a patron with a little friendly shaker competition, while the staff get the rest of us involved so the entire bar is cheering and clapping. Still, our bartenders are in no rush, ensuring we enjoy and understand our selections. Yvonne playfully flicks a man’s hand away as he reaches for his flaming drink. “Not yet,” she says, and instructs him, after the proper waiting time, which side of the glass to drink from for the best taste. Meanwhile Mandeep is diligently alerting patrons to the hint of charcoal powder that’s been sprinkled on the rim of our drinks, showing us how to hold our glasses so we don’t get it all over our fingers - and thereby stay looking as fly as our cocktails. Who needs a wingman when you have these two looking out for you? Sorry everyone, I checked – they’re both taken.
The Dranks: I order myself two signature cocktails:
The Torrents of Spring: glutinous rice cooked mezcal, grain whiskey, amaro nonino, clarified william pear, pom-beet shrub, charcoal
Winner Take Nothing: rotovap pink guava gin, baby carrot sous-vide suze, tarragon, blackened carrot bug, soda, dill (I drank the whole thing but still can’t tell you what a ‘blackened carrot bug’ is.)
I’m also treated to tastes of my neighbors’ drinks:
courtesy of my Italian bartenders (who are trying one of everything tonight): *A Moveable Feast (which tastes like a boozy oyster), *For Whom the Bell Tolls (which the Italians and I agree tastes like the color pink) and *The Sun Also Rises (the mesmerizingly green gin special)
from my Indonesian neighbor, sips of *The Garden of Eden (the flaming drink), which we both decide might be a little too smoky for our tastes
and of course, a smooth shot of straight tequila from Mandeep
Individual prices aren’t listed on the menu, but my total bill for the night comes out to a grand total of $264HKD – that’s $37.18 in US currency. Not cheap for Hong Kong prices (a Tsing Tao beer is $2USD at 7- Eleven) but also not the priciest joint in town (a cocktail on top of the Peninsula Hotel across the harbor will run you at least $22USD). The most interesting drink is definitely A Moveable Feast, but my favorite to sit and sip is the Winner Take Nothing. Check out their menu for a full list of drinks & ingredients.
Was I Hit On? Other than a double peck on the cheek goodnight from my new Italian friends, nothing scandalous nor salacious transpires. And I get the feeling that any kind of unwanted advances wouldn’t be tolerated by the ever-vigilant staff who work so hard to make The Old Man a friendly space for everyone.
Should You Drink Here Alone? Honestly, I wouldn’t recommend doing it any other way. It might be nice to share with a friend, but flying solo allowed me to succumb entirely to the experience that The Old Man curates: conversations with an international clientele at the communal bar; sampling pretentious ingredients like “copra fat-washed applejack” in an unpretentious environment; and staring unabashedly at the gorgeous bartending team. For an American feeling out of place in the East, who has been eating her way through Hong Kong with Google translate in one hand and a bottle of Pepto Bismol in the other, it was an exciting yet comfortable place to try something new. Cue Carly Rae Jepson’s Party for One
***Editor’s Note*** As of the week of June 11, 2019, Hong Kong is in crisis over a proposed extradition bill, with violent clashes between police and protestors.
Kate Shelton is a freelance stage manager based in NYC. She’s also that friend with zero chill who passes out itineraries on vacation and packs a purse for any scenario (someday someone will need that travel sized lint roller!).