How to design a successful bar

Building a bar that keeps customers coming back time and again means thinking about a lot more than what goes in the glass. From layout to lighting, we chat to World Class bartender Kevin Patnode and Proof & Company creative director Jason Williams about what makes a world-beating bar.

While great drinks are at the heart of any great bar, they’re just one component of building a place that’s a lasting success. The physical layout of a venue can have a huge impact on its prospects, which is why spending time thinking about the design of the space is crucial – and these considerations must begin way before you crack open the paint and start picking fonts for the menu. For instance, how do you decide where you’re going to put the bar itself? What about the seating? The bathrooms? And how do you balance what’s desirable with what’s practical?

Bethany Jones, of Dawnvale Group, a company that designs and builds bars across the UK, says that, in her experience, proximity is everything when it comes to delivering great service.

‘We use the “one-step” approach when designing all of our bars,’ she says. ‘The bartender has to have everything to hand within one step, ensuring super speed of service and good customer retention.’

Think beyond bottles and shakers, too – things such as the positioning and quantity of ice wells should be right at the top of your list. ‘There’s no point having the best-looking bar and the most up-to-date cocktail stations if you don’t have enough ice to fill them,’ says Bethany.

While the practicalities are important, Jason Williams, creative director of Singapore-based bar group Proof & Company, also highlights the message your layout can convey. He says, ‘I love cocktail bars where the bar is located close to the entrance. Most bars that are set up this way are saying [their] bartenders are the cornerstone of the establishment, and they’re the first to greet you and guide you through that experience.’

The next layer is the decor, and this is where your bar’s identity really starts to take shape. A visit to Proof & Company’s flagship, ATLAS, is probably the closest you can get to time travel. This gin-focused, Art Deco-styled bar is inspired by the 1920s, with plush burgundy carpets, leather upholstery and gold trim, with loads of period detail in between.


Photo by: EK Yap and ATLAS

Like ATLAS, Kulhanbeyi in Istanbul, a bar run by World Class bartender Kevin Patnode, has a strong sense of time and place, and communicates a connection to the past – albeit a very different one.

‘Having a strong identity can help to tell the story of the bar, and can evoke memories, feelings and wants,’ says Kevin. ‘The goal of my bar was to introduce the curious Turkish customer to classic cocktails, but, because I was aware this could be intimidating, it was important for me to design a space that looked and felt genuinely Turkish.’

Everything from the rugs to the glassware at Kulhanbeyi has been sourced from local flea markets and antiques shops, and it’s a look that suits this cosy venue, housed in a former coal store, making it feel both traditional and playful.

It’s not all down to the look, though – lighting, sound, smell and touch all play a part. Even the small details, such as the hand towels in the bathrooms and the coat check tokens, can impact the atmosphere of your bar and the impression it leaves.

‘I like that light can be measured in temperature, because it’s not just a visual thing, says Jason. ‘Lighting can have an effect on how guests physically feel. And music is not just music in a bar, it’s a soundtrack to the guest experience. Just like a film soundtrack, the soundscape plays its part in the story unfolding in the bar.’

Kevin adds, ’Touch is something we use to associate value, like touching fabrics in a store as we shop. A light, hand-blown coupe or a heavy crystal rocks glass can really add value to the customer’s experience.

‘If we have a special with fresh herbs, we always put those herbs on display on the bar. As the scent of fresh mint drifts about, a customer’s memory senses are triggered, and they start to crave that flavour without even realising it.’

To be a success, most bars must do more than simply serve drinks, but drinks are, of course, a vital piece of the puzzle, and should complement the environment in which they’re served. For Jason and ATLAS, this means no-holds-barred class.The bar’s ATLAS Martini (full recipe below) comes served in a frozen, custom-made John Jenkins crystal coupe, combining simple, classic elegance with a touch of creativity.

'Being a venue that has huge gin and Champagne collections, it’s fitting that the ATLAS Martini incorporates both ingredients,' says Jason. ‘It's the personification of the ATLAS experience, and the feel of the bar.'

ATLAS Martini

60ml of Tanqueray No. TEN 
15ml of bianco vermouth 
2 dashes of orange bitters 
5 dashes of Champagne vinegar 

Stir with ice and fine strain into a frozen glass. 
Twist with a pomelo peel and garnish with a lemon twist.