When our managing editor can’t write about herself, Sophie Steiner steps in reporting from Tokyo.
One of the most hyped bar openings of the year, Tokyo Confidential came roaring onto Asia’s bar scene this past October in a flurry of media coverage and laybacks.
Founded by managing editor of DRiNK Magazine, author of Cocktails of Asia, #9 on Bar World 100, and all-around drinks industry personality Holly Graham, the Azabujuban neighbourhood craft cocktail bar encourages visitors to leave the real world at the door and instead, “pull up and fess up” – the bar’s mantra.
With sprawling views over Tokyo Tower – a beacon of communication for the city – the venue embodies that same ethos as a hospitality-driven, ostentatiously unpretentious joint that receives bartenders and non-imbibers alike, encouraging a communal atmosphere regardless of background.
Tokyo Confidential’s Rube Goldberg of a concept involves anything and everything from drinks named after old Godzilla movies and kitschy trinket decorations (like Graham’s own maneki-nelo collection) to miso martinis, Asia’s first and only Fernet tap and spotlights on under appreciated regional Japanese ingredients. And all of that is served up with a twist and a sprinkling of friendly banter coming from all ends of the 300-year-old reclaimed temple pine central bar.
In short, visitors can expect a Tokyo Confidential experience to be equal parts unrestrained and unforgettable.
We sat down (obviously, drinks in hand) with the legend herself, co-owner Holly Graham, for a deep dive into her backstory, the bar’s design and its influence on Tokyo Confidential’s eccentric vibe, and how the team envisions this opening can and will impact Japan’s greater bar industry going forward.
Congrats on the opening, Holly. Let’s first take a step back and begin with your Asia origin story.
I graduated into the 2008 recession and disheartened, decided to find a career where I could work and escape my native London. I moved to rural Thailand to teach English for a year. This then followed with two years in Seoul and almost a decade in Hong Kong before moving to Tokyo.
You have an impressive background in the bar industry, how did that journey begin for you?
My parents met in a cafe that their parents worked in, and while they didn’t continue to do so long after I was born, I feel like hospitality comes naturally to us Grahams, particularly my mother. We always had people round our house for food and drink, and we love a cocktail. I channelled that love into writing, and in Hong Kong I took the role of food and drink editor at Time Out, but found myself falling more in love with the drink side.
Irked by mismanagement and a changing of hands, I walked away from Time Out Hong Kong wondering what the hell I was going to do, only to drown my sorrows in my favourite bar at the time (The Old Man, when it was under Agung Prabowo’s leadership). Agung asked me what I was going to do, and I said, “I dunno work for you?”
The next day I was having the time of my life at a bar which then went on to take the top spot on Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2019 and fifth in the world. It was a whirlwind of fun and learning, and I just knew I had found my tribe.
What has been the most defining moment in your career thus far?
There are lots because every small accomplishment or win is just that – an accomplishment or win. However, writing my first book Cocktails of Asia really kicked my imposter syndrome in the ass.
How do you and head bartender Wakana Murata compliment (and contrast) each other, resulting in a whole greater than the sum of its parts?
On the surface, we appear so different as she’s so calm, collected and unfuckwithable, whereas I am a bundle of flailing energy causing glorious chaos wherever I go. But we love the same things (agave, champagne, awamori, etc.), and we think very similarly, even if the outcome is different. She is my unicorn!
If you weren’t the author of your own cocktail book, a bar owner and an all-around influential person in the global bar scene, what would you be doing?
Sleeping. No honestly, I can’t see myself any other way. This is so me. In a past life I wanted to be a scriptwriter, but I guess I still write, so things just adapted.
What cocktail on the menu are you most proud of?
Don’t ask a mother to pick her favourite child! But if I have to, I guess it’s the Cheung Fun Old Fashioned, inspired by the Cantonese dish which is popular in Hong Kong. I may have left Hong Kong, but Hong Kong will never leave me. It helps me feel tied to my old home, especially when Hongkongers light up with joy when they see it on the menu.
We love the 360-style bar – how does it represent the ethos of Tokyo Confidential?
It encourages conversation and different perspectives of the bar – figuratively and metaphorically. I want people to feel comfortable and connected, and the bar shape stops it feeling like a barrier between bar and guest.
Talk to me about the food concept – it seems to be a bit of a mixed bag of nostalgia-inducing bites with a hit of extra flair (read: throwing caviar on a cream cheese slathered bagel). What is the main dish design concept/theme?
We have the incredibly talented two Michelin star chef Daniel Calvert as our consulting chef, who, like me is originally from England. He’s created some nods to British food (Coronation Chicken) and some, what I like to call “boujee bites” – like the Everything Bagel with caviar. I want people to enjoy elevated food without the price tag and in a casual bar setting.
How do you see Tokyo Confidential evolving in the future, and what impact do you believe Tokyo Confidential will have on Tokyo’s bar scene in return?
It’s hard to say as we’re still learning and improving every day. Kaizen [continuous improvement] as the Japanese say, but I want one thing to be for sure; I want to have a consistent core team who are happy and feel like I respect them. I refrain from using the word family as I think it’s toxic to use in a working environment, but I care deeply for them. If my team is happy, the bar exudes that and guests are happy.
I believe Tokyo Confidential is really adding something new to the scene. At least that’s what people keep telling us with large grins of approval!
Photo credit: Sophie Steiner/Millie Tang