Cocktails in the City: the continuing growth of Dirty Martini

Dirty Martini St Paul's

CG Restaurants & Bars has stepped up expansion of its Dirty Martini bars with two new sites in the City of London, reports Mark Ludmon. Pictures by Michael Franke

Matt Greenwood has notched up quite a few air miles doing research for the drinks menu at London’s Dirty Martini bars. In his role as product innovation and standards manager, he checked out cocktail hotspots New York City and Berlin as well as Manchester and Edinburgh. Combined with Matt’s own ideas, his travels have inspired the latest menu, offering a mix of styles and flavours, available across all five of the bars including two that opened in the City of London in October and November.

This focus on innovation and quality in the drinks is one of the reasons of the bars’ success, says Scott Matthews, chief executive of their owner CG Restaurants & Bars. “When we are planning a new menu, we don’t start with price. We work out what we want to serve and then work out how we can afford to serve it.” Matt, who started out as a bartender and general manager, also experimented with new flavour combinations with the chefs at CG Restaurants & Bars which also operates Fire & Stone restaurants and long-established Covent Garden dining destination Tuttons.

Under a menu heading of “short and sassy”, cocktails include the Smokin’ Joe Fresa, combining QuiQuiRiQui mezcal with Yellow Chartreuse and Punt e Mes vermouth, shaken with house-made strawberry syrup, fresh lemon juice and egg white. Alongside other original recipes, there are also twists on the classics such as Papa’s Daiquiri, mixing Havana Club 3 Year Old rum with Belvoir Fruit Farms elderflower cordial, fresh grapefruit juice, lime juice and a pinch of vanilla salt. The 16-strong section of Martini-style cocktails uses flavours such as blueberry shrub, blood orange, lavender, lychee, mango and chilli.

The eponymous Dirty Martini has been given a twist, with fresh thyme added to the mix of Martini Extra Dry vermouth, Kalamata olives and a choice of Tanqueray Gin or Grey Goose Vodka. Other classic cocktails are available on request from the team of bartenders who undergo a rigorous structured training programme designed specifically for the Dirty Martini brand.

The same approach is applied to the bar food which has been developed by the group’s executive chef Alan Southwell who also looks after the menu at dining destination Tuttons. Ranging from sharing platters to mini burgers and hot dogs, all dishes are made from scratch using fresh ingredients. “As with the drinks, we use good-quality products, not chosen by price,” Scott says.

The Dirty Martini concept has changed significantly since the first site opened in Covent Garden Piazza nine years ago. It was acquired by CG Restaurants & Bars – then called Covent Garden Restaurants – in 2007 but it was only five years ago that the company decided to develop Dirty Martini and roll it out to new sites. Its first new site opened in Hanover Square in Mayfair in 2011, followed by a move into the City with Bishopsgate in 2013.

Last year, the company began to step up expansion, firstly taking over the site of Novus Leisure’s Jewel in Wood Street, near St Paul’s, and then former bar Clause in Lovat Lane near Monument. At both sites, CG Restaurants & Bars worked with designer Darren Grapes of Grapes Design who, as well as being behind many bar and club interiors, also designed the Bishopsgate and Hanover Square bars.

At St Paul’s (pictured top), the venue has been opened up, with higher ceilings than other sites. It is the first Dirty Martini to be on ground level and, with 400 capacity, also its largest. A long main bar area stretches from the front door to a raised seating area at the back. Stairs lead down to a lower lounge area, with red velvet booths and pewter drinks tables with a more bohemian feel, while upstairs on a mezzanine is the semi-private Gallery bar. While this is part of a bigger focus on bookable areas, Scott says they did not want people to feel segregated. “We wanted to open it all up so people feel part of the whole venue.”

The slightly smaller Monument site (pictured below), with 350 capacity, is in the basement. The main bar is on the left as you come in, while on the right is a striking vaulted bar area with a back bar designed to resemble a 1950s-style cocktail cabinet. Scott points out that, while they aim for the same quality of atmosphere and service across all the sites, they are not exact copies. “People know they will have consistency wherever they go but each bar has its own individuality and character. We don’t do cookie cutter. Each site has unique touches but is still clearly a Dirty Martini.”

With the interior design, Darren agrees that no two sites are the same but explains there are certain design features that “bond the overall brand in the subsconsious”. These include commissioning unique pieces of artwork for each location, feature lighting sculptures made with different polished metals, entire illuminated ceilings and bespoke cocktail tables and club chairs. “The two latest transformations are an evolution,” Darren adds. “Grapes Design’s ethos is to never forget the true identity of ‘a classic cocktail bar balancing new sophisticated aesthetics with playful chic’.”

CG Restaurants & Bars has been working with design agency Mystery for the past four years on developing the bars’ branding, reflected in the tagline on its menus, “Spirited sophistication”. All the sites have table service throughout while the bar workstations have been customised for Dirty Martini, with Matt working closely with Sprint Group. “The days of operations not being involved in the design of a bar have long gone,” Scott adds.

Grapes Design is set to start work on a refurbishment of Hanover Square in February to update it in line with the newer bars. Scott explains: “We have found new ways of doing things in terms of the lighting and the interior and we know what is now working for our customers.” While he feels the product and experience are working well, the bars and drinks will continue to evolve. “Things keep changing. Customer demands change and the environment has to change with it. We have got to keep moving forward.”

However, Dirty Martini will continue to be a late-night bar focused on good-quality drinks, Scott adds. Although they have DJs and open from mid afternoon until as late as 3am at weekends, he stresses that “we don’t pretend to be a nightclub”. “Dirty Martini is a late-night bar, focused on fresh product, innovation and quality. It is aspirational but value for money and accessible. It looks premium but is more affordable than people expect it to be.”

The investments so far are paying off, contributing to a 4.5% increase in sales over Christmas and New Year for CG Restaurants & Bars. The Dirty Martini bars saw like-for-like sales at older sites increase by 6.2%, with New Year’s Eve sales soaring by 14% year on year. Both new Dirty Martinis experienced high demand for pre-bookings and reported sales 19% ahead of those budgeted. Across the five Dirty Martini bars, pre-bookings represented 57% of sales during the same period. With Covent Garden having a capacity of 120, Hanover Square 250 and Bishopsgate 350, Scott says this has provided them with an appealing range of spaces for corporate bookings.

CG Restaurants & Bars plans to open up to four new Dirty Martini bars this year, part of a target of having 12 to 15 by the end of 2016. While they continue to look at Greater London, Scott says they may look at other UK cities in the future. “Such a positive Christmas trade has strengthened our footing further and, with the funding already in place for new sites in 2015, our focus is to secure the right locations.”

Dirty Martini St Paul’s, 130 Wood Street, London EC2V 6DL Tel: 020 7632 2336
Dirty Martini Monument, 1 Lovat Lane, off Eastcheap, London EC3R 8DT Tel: 020 7632 2089

Dirty Martini Monument

Who did it
Interior design and project management, bespoke lighting: Grapes Design
Main contractor: Livesley Projects
Banquette seating: Fitz Impressions
Loose furniture: CFG Furniture
Flooring: Solus Ceramics
Resin floor: The National Flooring Company
General lighting: Twentytwentyone
Artwork: Dunk Design
Signage: Technical Signs
Bar systems: Sprint Group
Branding: Mystery

First published in the February 2015 print edition of Bar magazine.

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