Hidden retreats

They are meant to be underground bars, secret watering holes with no signboards or distinctive facades and some requiring passwords, but hush-hush cocktail bars here are mushrooming at such an alarming rate that they risk becoming mainstream.

In the last five months, at least five have opened here.

First came a nameless hole-in-the-wall joint behind an art bookshop called The Library in Keong Saik Road which requires a password for admission. Then, in October last year, The Horse’s Mouth opened at Forum The Shopping Mall, hidden in the basement.

In December last year, Bitters & Love bespoke cocktail bar popped up in the Boat Quay area – its only sign in small, discreet gold letters on its mailbox. The speakeasy-style Fordham & Grand (no relation to Bitters) opened its nondescript doors a month later, in the Tanjong Pagar area. The same month, Mad Men Attic Bar opened a stone’s throw away from Bitters & Love, accessible only by lift from a back alley.

Bar owners tell Life!Weekend that the secret bar concept is meant to “take patrons into another world”. Once safely ensconced in this other world, customers can presumably pat themselves on the back for their pathfinding skills, then give their full attention to the speciality concoctions, which can include ingredients such as kaya, or be presented in quirky receptacles such as tikis.

“A flashy entrance, like a skimpy red dress, can be alluring but it leaves little to the imagination,” says Mr Michael Callahan, 34, founder and lead bar-keeper of 28 Hong Kong Street, a windowless and signless bar at the eponymous location, which may or may not have started the trend but definitely became an open secret among hipsters soon after its almost surreptitious opening in October 2011.

“But an understated entrance, like an elegant Audrey Hepburn outfit, invites a more meaningful attraction,” he added.

Exclusivity – or the perception of it – is also part of the draw.

Mr Loh Lik Peng, 40, director of The Unlisted Collection, which owns The Library, said: “We are not aiming for a mass market and the bar is tiny. The password will allow us to control the guest experience better.”

Marketing gimmick or not, the concept seems to be working, with such bars ringing in good business: 28 Hong Kong Street and The Library are known to be packed on weekends. Drinks at these establishments can be more expensive than those at their more brazen cousins with uncomplicated door policies – fancier or bespoke cocktails cost $20 or more.

Mr Cheong Hai Poh, president of the Food & Beverage Managers’ Association, Singapore, is not surprised that the stowaway bar is rising in popularity. “We are, to some extent, being influenced by the West, where the trend of exclusive access to private bars has been highly popular since the 1980s,” he says.

But exclusivity has its drawbacks, bar owners say. Their bars accommodate fewer people, meaning that they must be prepared for lower profit margins. Discreet locations also means the need to rely heavily on word-of-mouth recommendations.

And potential customers may give up the search in frustration. As The Mad Men Attic Bar co-founder Eugene Fung, 31, admits: “It can get quite taxing for customers sometimes when they get lost and circle around for too long.”

Mr Russell Yu, 27, director of Iki Concepts, which is behind Uma Uma Ramen and The Horse’s Mouth, puts it bluntly: “To a certain degree, exclusivity does not pay off. We do still have to pay rent.

To that end, he adds, his bar is tweaking its branding and making itself more visible – to “help customers find exactly where that door is”.

In fact, two deliberately hard-to-find bars have since shut.

A fire struck the premises of two-month-old Pitmasters on March 10, causing it to be closed “indefinitely”, it wrote on its Facebook page. The bar in Beach Road had required patrons to press a buzzer to be let in by the owners, after front doors to a restaurant on the ground floor were locked at 10pm. Efforts to reach Pitmasters for comment were not successful.

Meanwhile, The Association of Bartenders & Sommeliers (Singapore) started an under-the-radar bar last August in River Valley Road, atop Malaysian restaurant PappaMia. There, trainee bartenders practise making the perfect tipple.

But operations manager Mac Lee says the owner has taken over the space, and the bar ceased operations last month.

Food & Beverage Managers’ Association, Singapore’s Mr Cheong predicts that such bars will continue to grow in number – as long as they differentiate themselves.

Auditor Michelle Lim, 30, who visited The Library recently, feels that the cloak-and-dagger business of passwords and revolving bookshelves to get a drink makes her feel like she is being “let in on a secret community”.

Says Ms Lim: “I must admit it can get quite gimmicky – but that does not detract from the novelty factor. Besides, the drinks at secret bars tend to be better than elsewhere. So I don’t mind paying slightly more as you get what you pay for.”

But, points out writer Kenneth Wee, 26, who has been to a few of these bars: “Compared to other more accessible bars, there is a certain degree of etiquette to uphold that leads to some self-consciousness.”