For the Connaught Bar, excellence has become the daily routine. Hamish Smith catches up with Ago Perrone, Maura Milia and Giorgio Bargiani to understand better how, after 15 years of the bar, the guest experience only gets better.
Photography by Richard Budd.
Join me, if you will, on a journey. We’re headed to the mid 2000s – not so long ago that it feels like a bygone era, but actually everything was a little bit different. This was before Uber, Airbnb, and we were treading, somewhat innocently, into the age of the smart phone and social media. The way people went out was different and what they did when they were out was different too.
The London bar industry was also on the verge of a watershed. Independent bars run by young bartenders who called themselves mixologists were peddling a new, creative approach, and it was catching. The one or two hotels that noticed – namely the Langham and the Connaught – had sniffed an opportunity. The Connaught in Mayfair, months away from launching Connaught Bar, took a leap of faith. It went to the street bars and it went after the top boy.
“Me, a hotel? It went in one ear and out the other,” says Ago Perrone, recalling how he was headhunted. All he’d heard from the Italian bartender community was that hotels were stuffy, bureaucratic and restrictive. How could a hotel be the right move for Perrone, not long named Class Bartender of the Year, who worked with Nidal Ramini and Marian Beke at the place to be – Montgomery Place.
Perrone was one of the vanguards of what you might consider the second phase of the second Golden Age of cocktails. It stood on the shoulders of Milk & Honey and LAB and took influence from the ever-pervasive and popularising world of chefs. The appreciation of fresh ingredients and provenance – something we take for granted today – was bleeding into bartending and through the unearthing of vintage cocktail books there was also a rediscovery of the framework of the cocktail method. Perrone would start his day at the fruit and vegetable market, make a twisted classic in the afternoon and start it all again the following day. “I had my freedom – why would you go to work in a structure that was formal and controlled,” he says.
Why indeed? Well, being offered the role of head mixologist of Connaught Bar had something to do with it, even if that was a concept under construction. The bar too – when bar manager Santino Cicciari, Perrone and a young Erik Lorincz came together to form the opening team – was weeks from completion.
“When we arrived, Connaught Bar was under scaffolding and we had four weeks to create the first menu from a small butler’s room on the fourth floor that had no windows or air conditioning,” says Perrone. But creativity sometimes needs a little restriction and the force of their will – to bring modern bartending into a classical, five-star hotel environment – couldn’t be held back. “Along with Artesian, we were creating a new path for hotel bars,” says Perrone.
From that room would emerge the best Bloody Mary anyone has ever tasted, and also the Champagne Cocktail twist, the Fleurissimo – both of which feature in the cocktail menu 15 years later. But the drink that Connaught Bar is most famous for – the Dry Martini, served with a blend of vermouths and the guest’s own choice of bitters – was also created in that sweat-box room with no windows. “Every day I was crossing the corridor to do Dry Martini tastings with the hotel’s managers,” recalls Perrone.
Perrone’s own neo-classic, the Mulata Daisy, would soon find its way on to the menu too. It was created for the first round of a start-up cocktail competition you might have heard of: it was called Bacardi Legacy. At this time, the landscape was changing rapidly. In 2009 came The World’s 50 Best Bars and the following year saw the debuts of London Cocktail Week and World Class.
If bartending had lacked the mainstream credit it deserved up to now, we were entering the age of recognition – and Connaught Bar was well placed to capitalise. The awards came in a flurry: Hotel Bar of the Year with Class in 2009. The same title with Tales in 2010, then entry into The World’s 50 Best Bars (a place it has held ever since). There were individual awards too – Perrone winning World’s Best Bartender at Tales, while on the comp circuit, Connaught Bar was cleaning up. To imagine that in 2010 it was home to the champions of Bacardi Legacy (Perrone) and World Class (Lorincz).
The customers were also changing. In the first weeks of Connaught Bar, it was more of a fashionista crowd, only interested in taking photos on their new smart phones of the David Collins-designed decor. “At first they didn’t want a drink,” remembers Perrone. “But they started to fall in love with the other aspects of the bar – the drinks and style of service.” Everything was falling into place.
And then, in a puff, Perrone was alone. “All of a sudden things changed – Erik left to open the Savoy, Santino was gone and also Roland Haimer, the assistant manager,” says Perrone. This is the kind of exodus that can derail. But Perrone stepped up and, with new recruit Rusty Cerven – himself an emerging star - the bar opened a new chapter, going on to cement its reputation as a flagbearer of modern hotel bars. Together with the Savoy and the Langham, there was a blueprint for what modern meets classic looks like, a style now emulated around the world.
We probably didn’t know it at the time, but the year of 2014 was the bar’s next big milestone, when two young hospitality world hopefuls joined Connaught Bar. “Giorgio and I started six months apart,” says Maura Milia, now the bar’s bar manager – and Class’s Bar Manager of the Year.
But unlike many Italian hospitality-trained professionals who make their way to London, Milia was a graduate who took a detour into hospitality. “As soon as I stepped in here, seeing the room, something changed in me,” she says. “I remember everything: the scent of the candles, the lighting, the way the staff moved around the floor. I remember thinking: are you allowed to sit down with the guests? It made me feel at ease. I immediately wanted the job.”
Starting as a waiter, Milia, who grew up in a small village in Sardinia, was very green. “It was traumatising at the start. I joined a very established team. The bar was really busy, they were fast-paced, they knew the guests, their names and what they drank – there was a lot to learn. The bar manager pushed me – and I’m grateful. Soon I loved it. The guests had a great impact on me. My background is in human sciences, which I applied a lot – this is a people business.”
Milia’s innate understanding of people – the colleagues who would soon become her own team as she rose to bar manager - and the guest interaction would provide another layer to the bar’s hospitality. “What I have learned has set the foundations for what I’m now doing with the next generation,” she says. And outside of her own role in service – one of the most natural, warm hosts you’ll find – it’s also the development of those around her which gives her purpose. Milia is the organiser behind the scenes, orchestrating training, nurturing and empowering her team.
Enter Giorgio Bargiani
Six months after Milia joined the Connaught Bar team, Giorgio Bargiani (now the assistant director of mixology) arrived from Pisa. He had a more classical background. Hospitality was the family business and, as he likes to point out ‘bar’ is in his name (nominative determinism strikes again). Bargiani came to London off the back of hotel experience too – this is where he learned “the power of the smile” – and worked in fine dining, where discipline was ingrained.
It didn’t take long for Bargiani to get a grip on how five-star hotels work. “I started to understand that people come to these venues not because of what they eat and drink but the way it makes them feel.” He had joined as a bar back, and can see the principles learned in those early days carried him right the way through. “As a bar back you must have order, tidiness, and you must be kind and respectful to everyone around you – I still have the same mindset in what I do.”
For Bargiani, discipline and a sense of hospitality are the baseline for everything the team does. He says it is here, from these ingrained foundations, that you have the freedom to “express your personality and be creative”. And creativity not just in drinks making but in guest interaction. “We adapt to the person in front of us – our posture, body language, tone of voice and way of talking. The Connaught Bar ethos is about making the team feel safe and confident, so they can express themselves.”
And as a collective, that is Connaught Bar. “This is the identity of the bar,” says Milia. “We want to create flawless service – and this has to be embodied by the new generation coming through. The message is very clear – it’s about the love for hospitality; it’s about pleasing our guests. It’s not for ourselves or our egos but our guests. We give the sense of responsibility to our team beyond their role – from bar back to bartender to waiter, we are all accountable for what we do.”
The test of any bar is when its leaders aren’t in residence. “It’s not uncommon that all three of us are not at the bar, but it keeps going at the same level,” says Milia. “We try to make the experience seamless. It’s extremely important that the magic remains.”
This relationship with the guest is at the heart of Connaught Bar’s menus. Never outlandish concepts, they instead focus on the way the bar and the drinks make the guest feel. Just launched, Synergia consists of three chapters that together look to “sum up and extend” the bar’s legacy. Over to Perrone to explain: “Synergia is the natural result of a 15-year journey focusing on the best possible experience we can offer to the people who walk through the door of Connaught Bar, with
each team member adding something new and fresh to a long-standing, unvaried vision.”
The first chapter, Self, takes inspiration from “feelings and ideas we experience as individuals”. It includes Soothe My Soul, which combines Elit vodka, Everleaf Forest, Podere Santa Bianca Liquore N.4, ginger & turmeric kombucha and chilli honey.
The second, Other, uses flavours “defined by immediacy and deception” and features Icebreaker, Appleton 12, pisco, amontillado sherry, roasted peanut butter, fermented banana, verjus and Abbott’s bitters.
Synergy, the third chapter, embraces “the sense of togetherness that is hospitality”, and features Kindred Joy, a take on the Paloma that carbonates Patrón Silver, Three Spirit Spark Blurred Wine, yuzu syrup, green chilli liqueur, pink grapefruit soda and tomato liqueur.
The menu, as ever, feels very Connaught Bar. Here everything is in keeping and working towards a collective purpose. The execution of the drinks, the style with which they are served and the warmth and attentiveness of the hospitality – over the 15 years of Connaught Bar, it’s all been completely seamless.