Okay, let me pitch you.
I’m an ex-bartender with eight months of real-world experience under my belt, most of that in daytime shifts. I worked in a hotel bar with a buzzy cocktail emphasis — one with no beer on draught but 25 different bottles of scotch. I’m a little obnoxious about things like bars giving people free water. I give away a few too many free drinks.
And I would like to run your bar, and get paid for it.
Well it didn’t go quite like that. My time in the Ba Cay Choi empire started with an August 2012 Word interview with its founder, Bui Tuong Anh.
Ba Cay Choi I is a cosy little café up in Phu Nhuan, with an emphasis on fantasy and forgetting yourself. The exterior differentiates itself from others on its Phan Xich Long block by means of its reclaimed wood armour and a generally magical aura. The correct translation of its name is ‘Three Brooms Town’ or, colloquially, the ‘Elf Café’.
Anh and I have the same sense of humour, and I eventually started crafting choose-your-own-adventures for her newsletter. One thing led to another, and one night she asked, “How do you feel about pirate bars?”
Of course, I love pirate bars. The way Anh pitched it, it sounded like an ideal opportunity to do something I’d long dreamed of. The atmosphere, customer-base and staff would be solved — all I would have to worry about were the drinks.
So I dreamed big, stalked cocktail forums and tried to figure out a cocktail menu from the outside-in.
Here’s something I didn’t know — it’s hard for a bar to make money in this town. Between the high import taxes and the low prices people are willing to pay, it’s a slog.
There are other complications as well. One is sourcing spirits. Some distributors aren’t great with returning phone calls. Others aren’t great with providing proof of tax paid. Some, improbably, try to push you into buying the same vodka you bought to get drunk in high school, at US$12 for a 1.75-litre bottle.
I carefully worded my text messages, rewriting them for clarity and charm as if I was trying to seduce a girl who wasn’t too interested.
Back in Philadelphia, I felt like the cool kid at the dance. Craft cuties like the St. Germain brand rep and the outdoorsy type from the artisanal Death’s Door distillery would chat me up and compliment the cocktails I poured. The guy from Four Roses would slip me a bottle of their small-batch bourbon and say, “We’re not the same Four Roses” as the guys who historically trafficked in yellow labels and got dads in the 1950s drunk. How was he to know I still drank the cheap stuff?
Our initial stock is a bit incomplete at the start of Leaky Skull Tavern’s soft opening — Jul. 15, the date we finally sort out delivery. But we’ve got our bases covered.
The menu is built on lots of tweaked sours, using the lime juice we have in abundance and some funky homemade syrups, like the one with lemongrass and those herbs you put in your pho. We have house-brewed ginger beer and Tiger-brewed draught beer. There’s the occasional stirred drink — reference the Jack Sparrow, built French Manhattan style from Maker’s Mark, Chambord and sweet vermouth. From the mixing glass it’s poured sans ice into a metal goblet. The appropriate delivery line goes, “Here’s yer bowl of punch, matey.”
The menu — at the time of this writing, a work in progress — will feature some creative tactics like an instructional on correct pirate toasts (put a hand over one eye and hold up your drink with the other, as you go, “1-2-3-yarrrr!”), a choose-your-own-adventure/drink to help indecisive pirates, and goofy descriptions such as this one, for Blackbeard’s Health Drink: “The salty seas are no good for a man’s beard colour, so the pirate with the blackest beard of all be concoctin’ a special cure out of botanicals and the finest herbs in all the Orient!”
As for practical management, language issues have made me a believer in “show, don’t tell”. When one customer reached the 30cm across the bar for the bitters, I instructed apprentice barman Thanh to cut off the next amateur mixologist mid-grab, politely, then offer to administer them himself. When someone asked for something we didn’t have, I encouraged Thanh to deflect and suggest something similar, instead of just saying “no”. When the bill took a long time, I encouraged Thanh and the cocktailers to be proactive — asking if customers would like another when their drinks dip below the quarter-full mark, and preparing their bills in advance when it seems they’re on their way towards leaving. It’s a work in progress, too.
Splicing the Mainbrace
Now a week into the soft opening, things are going smoothly. That’s mostly because there are very few customers — a deliberate move on Anh’s part, as she readies her staff for the inevitable deluge. The first Ba Cay Choi is one of the most popular places in Vietnam for Vietnamese aged 15 to 30, and she wants to assure the same high standards throughout the bakery, craft workshops, 3D movie theatre, bar-restaurant-juicery and the many cosy nooks and crannies of this iteration. It’s a big step in a larger plan, which involves cornering Vietnam’s surprisingly large market for dressing up and getting silly. Anh started her quest with an idea for a theme park, and that’s a bit what this place is like.
From the entrance, this place is a trip. As you walk down the cobblestoned path of workshop street, you get the feeling that you’re in one of those historical villages where people do old-timey things in goofy costumes — except here we’re harkening back to a past that’s never been. Pass the well with sunken stairs leading to another dimension and head up the creaky wood to the Tremble Jungle, the 15-metre-tall main room where patrons can eat and relax on wagon-wheel seats around barrel-carved tables, under a sky of a 100 green orbs that resemble a wink-wink version of the open sea weather phenomenon St. Elmo’s Fire.
Pass all that and you’re in the Leaky Skull, facing the street below over a reclaimed wooden balcony rail that resembles a ship’s aft section when the rain starts in. Sit down for a spell and say Arrrr!
The Leaky Skull Tavern is on the second floor of Ba Cay Choi II, opposite the sunglass sellers at 61 Ho Xuan Huong, Q3. The grand opening is Aug. 1 — stop by anytime after that from 5.30pm to 10pm, eventually 11pm or midnight once we work out the kinks. The non-alcohol serving portions of the establishment are open from 9am to 10pm. For more information, consult bacaychoi.com
There’s a bar supply store around Yersin market, and these fine sources will get you up to speed on the rest:
Carry a range of spirits, wines and Monin syrups. Their slogan: “No smuggle, no fake.”
Have a modest line of spirits, most corporately connected with Patron.
Distribute a range of spirits, wines and Heineken.