With Halloween just around the corner, you may consider decking out your bar with all things black, orange and eerie, with ghosts and skeletons hanging from the ceiling, and perhaps a spooky drink or two for effect. But for the folks who work in bars themed for fanatical devotees of books, movies, legends and the like, the thematic decor stays year-round.
Bars with nerdy themes are nothing new. In fact, the Sherlock Holmes Pub in London has housed a collection of Sherlockian memorabilia since 1957. Cities like Portland and New York City have long-since been home to barcades, comic book-themed bars, and Lovecraftian watering holes. New spots, however, are popping faster than you can say, “Elementary, my dear Watson!” This September, The Lockhart, a Harry Potter-themed bar, opened in Toronto. Later this fall, Downtown Disney will gain Jock Lindsey’s Hangar Bar, an Indiana Jones-themed tippling house.
Take heed — The Lockhart’s Death Shot is nearly as powerful as an Avada Kedavra curse.
Some of these pubs stick to beer, wine, or simple mixed drinks, leaving the extravagance for choices in wall hangings and employee costumes. But others have well-developed cocktail programs to match. For the most part, their drink development process is the same as at most other bars: start with a classic recipe and apply the Mr. Potato Head approach, says Library Bar’s Beverage Director Dylan Snyder. “You just add different parts to the drink to make it different. Ninety percent of the time, that’s where we start.”
For the most part, once a cocktail is developed, the bartender will look into the source material surrounding the bar’s theme to find a name. Sometimes, however, the name comes first.
At The Way Station, a Doctor Who themed bar in NYC, “a lot of our cocktails came to us very easily,” says owner Andy Heidel. “The Doctor has a sonic screwdriver. There’s already a drink called the Screwdriver. [To] turn it into a Sonic Screwdrivers, we pour cordials into the glass to mimic the color of the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver.” He’s also had to keep his clientele in mind. “Nerds definitely have a bit of a sweeter palate,” he says.
Perks and Quirks
Operating nerd-centric bars comes with some unexpected perks. “Because themes appeal to a larger demographic, I think you get a wider variety of people,” says Donny Dirk’s Zombie Den’s Food & Beverage Director, Jessica Olson. And according to Library Bar’s Dylan Snyder, adding a theme also gives the drinks a “sense of approachability” that stems from the themed naming system. Even if a drink includes ingredients that are unfamiliar to patrons, says Snyder, naming a cocktail something recognizable makes guests more willing to try things they may not have otherwise.
Library Bar’s cozy interior is as equipped for literary pursuits as it is for studies on great cocktails.
Perhaps the ultimate perk of themed bars is the dedicated communities that form around them. Most of The Way Station’s regulars are part of their Facebook group. “It’s a great way to get the word out [about events],” says Heidel. “It also acts as a community board, which keeps people more active on the page.”
At both The Way Station and Library Bar, guests are involved in the drink making process by suggesting names. “The more the staff and customers are involved, the more sense of ownership they feel for things,” says Snyder. “Everybody wins that way.”
As you might expect, one of the biggest challenges in operating a themed bar is in making sure that the theme is well-executed, but doesn’t cross the line into being cheesy. “Not everything has to be obvious,” says Olson. “[You have to have] a sense of humor and go the extra mile to [add] layers to the theme. You really have to understand the theme from all angles, and be very committed to it.”
Olson adds to make sure that every item on your menu fits with the theme. “If you have an item that doesn’t fit, it will stick out and throw people off,” she says. Snyder’s trick is to keep it subtle. “Our [cocktail] names coincide with literature,” he says. “But they’re usually references to something in literature, not just the name of a book or an author.”
Whether you identify as a cocktail nerd or a Whovian, bibliophile, or zombie lover (or Sherlockian, H.R. Giger aficionado, etc.) there’s a bar for nearly every kind of geek. You’ll come for the theme and stay for the drinks.
In the case of Donny Dirk’s Zombie Den, some guests stay longer than others.