Emily K Goodman reports on The Dark Horse that is riding high in Bath
Louis Xavier Lewis-Smith is not the first ex-brand ambassador to set up a bar, but he is the first to do so in the West Country. With a board of close friends including Anistatia Miller from drinks publisher Mixellany and Xavier Padovani of Experimental Group consulting on all things from product development to bar set-up, The Dark Horse in Bath combines local craftsmanship with world-class attention to detail.
The basement venue was stripped and renovated by hand in just 81 days. Everything from the bar design to the build was Louis’ handiwork – a change from his previous jobs as brand ambassador for Hendrick’s Gin and Sailor Jerry rum. A bespoke bar, high tables and booth furniture were built using iroko wood, with the help of skilled carpenter Luke Saxton. Music was a crucial concern, so five Naim Mu-so units running 24-bit high-definition audio were installed to play a mix of classic British rock ‘n’ roll. The bar is acoustically treated throughout and, Louis says, it “sounds delicious”.
At the entrance is a tavern-style mix of natural wood and wrought ironwork, with the bar top serving as a perch for an enormous iron eagle. This leads through to a saloon room furnished with antiques and artwork from the likes of Mishka Westell.
The driving ethos behind The Dark Horse is, Louis emphasises, “the art of being nice to people” – an attentive approach to hospitality in a relaxing atmosphere. This is reflected in the clean, efficient design of the two-station bar, set up like a restaurant pass, where custom-built rear-loading fridge, dishwasher and bins mean that traditional bar-back duties can be carried out seamlessly from the kitchen. “All the nerdy stuff we do behind the scenes, we keep it there,” Louis says.
On the menu there is a roster of great regional produce including wines from Cornwall and Gloucestershire and bottled and draught beers from surrounding breweries. There are two food plates: homemade hummus and a delectable West country cheese board. Bar “gaffer” Sam Kershaw has developed a seasonal menu of 19 drinks using house cordials, syrups and locally sourced ingredients. The heady High Society cocktail combines Beefeater London Dry Gin with Sipsmith Sloe Gin, blood orange cordial, fresh lime and house fizz. The house sherry blend and the hopped pineapple cordial add real distinction.
The Dark Horse is doing a series of bar takeovers where globally renowned bar operators send an envoy to do a version of their own menu for one night only – they have hosted the Bitter & Twisted Cocktail Parlour from Phoenix, Arizona, and The Blind Pig from London. In April, they will take over Joyeux Bordel in London. Follow The Dark Horse on Facebook for details of upcoming events.
The Dark Horse, 7a Kingsmead Square, Bath BA1 2AB
Tel: 01225 282477
Behind the scenes
Woods for bar and furniture: Oscar Windebank & Sons
Antiques: James Townsend
Handmade bar aprons: Mishi May
Branding: Chris Hopewell of Jacknife Studios
Originally published in the April 2016 print edition of Bar magazine.