Why was LAB bar so iconic?

After many years serving Soho, the iconic bar industry hangout LAB bar is set to close its doors on Sunday 11th September.

The site will reopen in November as a new bar run by Bobby Hiddleston and Mia Johansson, who will own the bar in partnership with fellow husband and wife team and founders of Speakeasy Entertainment (Nightjar & Oriole), Edmund Weil and Rosie Stimpson.

The iconic venue was a training ground of bar industry greats, including Dre Masso, Andrea Montague, Tim Stones, and John Gakuru, Trade Marketing Manager at Think Spirits here in Australia.

Gakuru was the general manager of LAB from 2000 to 2005 and he has some understandably fond memories.

“The news of LAB’s closing is bittersweet. I’ve had some of the most bi-polar highs and lows of my career in that little Soho den,” he says. “LAB forced me to step up to the management plate at 23 years old when all I wanted to do was become a better bartender. I didn’t want the responsibility. Four and a half years later I was a proud professional and on track for a career that would not have been possible without LAB.

“The roll call of people who called LAB home, honed their skills and went on to global success reads as the who’s who of the international cocktail world,” he says.

So what exactly made it so iconic and such a key destination for bartenders from around the world?

“It wasn’t one particular thing. It was the sum of all of its parts,” says Gakuru. “If you laid all the pieces of LAB out in a carpark, it wasn’t incredible in any one particular area but if you put all of those things together – interior design, music policy, cocktail list, bartenders, customers, Soho, the toilets – all those things together in one package that was 1999 through the early 2000s, and you have something that was, at that time, evolutionary.

“What I mean by that is that the best cocktails at the time in London were in classic London hotel bars – the Savoys and the Langhams and the Ritzs and so on – but if you wanted a good time or a laugh you only had TGI Fridays, Planet Hollywood, or nightclubs. There wasn’t something that brought an up-tempo energy, with incredible cocktails, and with bar staff who gave as good as they got and could banter with guests, and give them an experience that not many people were used to and drive that energy and passion for a great guest experience.

“Guest experience is a better term than customer service, because there were many times when we were clearly rude. But even when being clearly rude to a guest, you can create a great guest experience. They enjoy it.

“As a result of really caring about the ingredients that went into a glass and the way those were then presented to a guest, was as important as loving what we did for a living. There was this amazing magic that happened.

Building a reputation the “old fashioned” way.

“When I took over as general manager, the old team moved out. My team came in and I had them for the whole time I was manager, basically. There was hardly any staff turnover behind the bar for five years. Which is amazing.

“We knew we were doing something new and special and we knew we were a destination for bartenders from around the world. We were a rite of passage but there was never an arrogance about that – it was more an onus of responsibility to deliver on everyone’s expectations.

“I definitely felt it at the time but I also had the freedom and the autonomy to have fun and love what I was doing. Pushing boundaries and making sure that LAB stayed open – we had to stay busy and profitable, and it was all pre-social media too. There was no “boost post”. Our reputation was built through word of mouth – “Have you been to LAB? Have you seen those fucking idiots blow fire on the ceiling, and they’re all drinking shots of tequila behind the bar at 9pm. You have to check this place out”.

“LAB was about each small detail building up a picture and a guest experience and a career experience that was second to none.”

So what happens now?

So what is next for the venue space? Bobby Hiddleston and Mia Johansson will lead the concept and offering of the new venue. Both are firmly established within the London bar scene and have worked at leading bars around the world: “We’re very excited for the project ahead and the new plans we have for a venue that we know means a lot to many in the industry. It’s great to be working with our new partners Edmund and Rosie, and we can’t wait to join everyone for a final get together at Lab.”

Edmund Weil and Rosie Stimpson opened the award-winning Nightjar in 2010 and were at the forefront of the speakeasy, craft cocktail trend that swept the English capital. Since then Nightjar has consecutively been included in the top three of the World’s 50 Best Bars. In November 2015 they opened their second site Oriole, which recently won Best New International Cocktail Bar at the Spirited Awards in New Orleans: “We’re very happy to be working with Bobby and Mia, they are both very talented and we can’t wait to see their vision for the new bar come to life. We’ll be joining everyone for a final farewell of Lab, before embarking on this new project together.”

Gakuru, for one, is excited about what is in store for the new bar.

“Over 16 years is an incredible run, there are no bad vibes and it’s going to a couple of great people – Bobby and Mia – who are taking on the onus of responsibility of what LAB means to so many people around the world.”

Details of the guest bartenders returning to Lab and the closing parties will be announced shortly via social media, follow @LABclosingparties on Instagram and @labclosingparty on Twitter to stay updated.

The new bar will open in November, more details on the concept and offering to follow.

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