Words by: Lukas Raschilla
In 2016, veteran Kiwi bartender Hayden Lambert opened Above Board, an intimate venue with a focus on cocktails and hospitality in Melbourne's inner-city suburb of Collingwood. Having worked extensively in Europe, most notably at the multi-award winning 5-Star Merchant Hotel in Belfast, where he honed his skills and discovered his passion for bartending. Prior to opening Above Board, Lambert plied his craft at Bar Americano in Melbourne's CBD, where he met bar regular and business partner, fellow Kiwi Manu Potoi, who himself has a hospitality background in restaurants and hotels and currently co-owns Rockwell & Sons and Bar Liberty. Lambert wanted to open an intimate venue that focused on flavours and great hospitality. Hidden, with entry via a laneway or through craft beer bar, Beer Mash, Lambert colloquially refers to Above Board as, "Unintentionally Melbourne's most Melbourne bar".
At its core, the concept for Above Board is a relatively simple one to grasp; an intimate bar that centralises around two main focal points which are the drinks and providing great hospitality - get those right, and work outwards from there. Lambert wanted to create his own place, in his own style, drawing inspiration not only from where he had plied his trade over the years, but also from his life experiences, including a number of years spent abroad in Europe. His love for classic cocktails and passion for innovation meet in the middle, which is evident in not only the style of bar, but in the drinks and hospitality. In essence, Above Board can be considered an extension of Lambert, encapsulating his personality and style; Professional, unpretentious service with a smile paired alongside cracking drinks and great chat; what some would consider the perfect combination.
Upon visiting Above Board, one can see the inspiration from classic cocktails immediately with the Cobbler style shakers lined up along the bar, something that doesn't appear to be in vogue or "on trend" in current bartending circles, with a majority of bartenders favouring the Boston & Toby tin. While the Cobbler shaker is very much classic, Lambert is cognisant of always providing the customer with the best drink possible, "I prefer them as there's less distance for the ingredients to travel, meaning the drink chills quicker and there's less dilution".
The venue, like many Melbourne watering holes and eateries, is somewhat hidden with entry via a laneway or through another venue and up the stairs, but it's a small price to pay in effort for such a reward. In the center of the venue sits as an island style bar with a wrap-around, with a defined edge, and features the unique introduction of the two seats in behind the bar so customers can see what actually happens behind a bar. "We took some of the things that I loved about Bar Americano, but we added seating, and seating changes the dynamic of how you interact with people", says Lambert. The idea of the two seats in behind the bar stemmed from Lambert's experience at The Merchant Hotel, where on day shift he would take the time to show customers the intricacies of how the bar operates. The introduction of these two seats and allowing people in behind the bar gives a completely different feel and view. The seats are separate and not attached to the main piece of the bar yet bring you closer to the action. It's what can be considered true transparency from a venue, done in a similar fashion to the open style kitchens some restaurants employ. This is one of the most interesting characteristics of the venue, allowing patrons to view the theatre of bartending from a completely new perspective. It feels almost akin to having a backstage pass, like watching a band rock out from the side of the stage.
Inside Above Board
Stepping into Above Board, the lack of any visible spirit bottles or back bar becomes apparent. A choice made by Lambert as a way to encourage customers to think laterally in how they consume drinks, and to think in terms of flavours, textures, and taste rather than simply relying on their go-to spirits. "I felt that if we start only defining bars by what bottles you can see, we're really in a lot of trouble for what a bar really is. A bar is about a place where you come, be hospitable, have a drink, socialise, and the social aspect is really what you come to a bar for, the secondary aspect is the booze".
And while some traditionalists may believe it to be impractical or even unnecessary to have no bottles on display, it in fact has an intriguingly positive follow on effect, providing the staff at Above Board with full reign to engage with customers, noting that the call for a particular brand or specific type of spirit is less important than the flavours the customer has a penchant for. However, this isn't always the easiest route when slinging drinks out at a fast pace, as Lambert points out, "It definitely has its challenges. It would be way easier just to have products on display, but it works because all of a sudden people start talking about flavours so you can connect the dots elsewhere and you've got a different perspective of how you present a drink to a customer, because you're not just selling it based off one particular ingredient". This sometimes means that staff are navigating their way to find alternatives for customers, who may have a favourite bar call, but in turn, it gives them the flexibility to introduce people to different flavours, and indeed, a new way of ordering and consuming a drink.
What becomes evident is that Above Board ultimately has two central focuses; the way in which the customer is taken care of, and the way in which drinks are presented. To deliver this in the best way possible, the venue houses only 12 seats, with no standing room. This is done to allow one bartender to be able to control the room and engage with each and every customer. It also aids in keeping the flow of the room and distinctly avoids the clutter which can be a venue's downfall. While people are continually wanting great drinks at a fast pace, the transparency of Above Board, from the flat kitchen bench style bar, to the seats in behind the bar means that each and every customer has a clear view of what the bartender is doing and can see how time works and how speed efficient they are. And, working outwards from that, one can see how the venue encapsulates the hospitality philosophy of Hayden Lambert. It is a bar with an inviting setting that provides great hospitality in a nice friendly way, the way you would want to be served.