The Old Man

10 Jul. 2019
The Big Fishes of Asia's Best Bar

Although it opened less than two years ago, Hong Kong’s The Old Man is already considered as one of the best bars in the world – it took tenth position (and best new entry) last year on the famed 50 Best list and was recently named Asia Best Bar. The owners have recently added The Sea, a second bar, and opened The Old Man Singapore. 

The Old Man, named after the Hemingway classic, has built its Hong Kong reputation on up-close-and-personal service – the main table of the diminutive space is an extension of the bar – and stellar experimental drinks, concocted with rotovap and other modernist gadgetry. The Singapore venue has been designed to look exactly the same, although the space is bigger, and to deliver the same experience. But as partners Agung Prabowo and Andrew Yap told us, they’re not in the business of creating a franchise: “We just didn’t want people comparing both bars so we decided to make them exactly the same – and they are 99% the same”, says Agung. “It’s déjà-vu: you walk in and you feel like home”, adds Andrew. 

This approach extends to the drinks: Singapore is currently serving Hong Kong’s first menu. In order to introduce the style to the city-state, guests can thus pick the Death in the Afternoon (with coco-pandan yogurt), the Islands in the Stream (with clarified grapefruit and salted gin) or the clarified Papa Doble with sous-vide pineapple white rum and jalapeño maraschino. “It’s the same drinks, but we adjust them slightly”, Agung tells us. “In Singapore, they like it a bit sweeter while Hong Kong likes it sour and bitter”

The next step is for both venues to work together and come up with the next menu (#3 in Hong Kong, #2 in Singapore), in a sort of pan-Asian effort. “For the first two menus, I created all the drinks and then introduced them to the team and they were like ‘what the f**k is this?’”, Agung jokes. “The prep for our drinks is very intense, and I want the team to feel involved in the process”. More creative input doesn’t mean they will launch more than one menu per year, though. “You know, all our drinks are named after a Hemingway book and he didn’t write enough. We don’t want to run out”, Agung deadpans. Joking aside, as Andrew tells us “the R&D process takes 5 to 6 months. It doesn’t make sense to change after three months”.

This is a far cry from Agung’s experience in luxury hotel – he ran, among other programs, the now legendary Lobster Bar & Grill at Hong Kong’s Shangri-La – where there’s an incentive, as he puts it, “to play it safe”. The background of both Roman Ghale and James Tamang – the partners with whom he opened the first venue – and Andrew is also similar. And in that big change may lie the reason why they picked The Old Man as the name of their bars: “It’s a book about faith, determination, never giving up. You want to catch the big fish. This speaks to us as bartenders. Like most bartenders around the world, we wanted to open our own place. The Old Man is our big fish.”  

Because they’re younger than Hemingway’s old man, they managed to catch a  second fish, opening The Sea, a bar where drinks are a tad more simple, a few months ago. And a third fish last May, in the shape of The Old Man Singapore. Who knows if a fourth will come… For now, Agung in Hong Kong and Andrew in Singapore want to focus on their guests and on their current bars. They grew fast, but they’re not about to lose sight of what really matters.

François Monti