How does a bar as small as a single car space make the World's 50 Best Bars list?
Cantina OK! is the little bar achieving big things.
Billed as a micro mezcal bar, it really is small; the bar holds just 20 people, including three staff members. The best way to think about the bar, I think, is as an exercise in just how much fun, humanity, and hospitality you can stuff into a room the size of one car space.
And as it turns out, you can fit quite a lot of good times into the space. That’s something that the bar's creative lead, Harrison Kenney, knows a thing or two about.
“We’re on [Sydney’s] Clarence Street for one, there is like 10 good bars around us, some of the best bars in the country,” Kenney says. “But people have chosen to come to Cantina — they could go anywhere — but they want to come here. I owe it to them to give them the best experience they could possibly have. Otherwise, what am I really doing?”
It’s that commitment to what they call genuine hospitality that has seen the bar grace The World’s 50 Best Bars list twice in its first three years of trade, win accolades at home and abroad, and become a favourite with bartenders and off-work hospitality types.
And, as Kenney explains in the video below (transcribed and edited for length and clarity beneath), it’s that genuine hospitality — not the awards — that gets him excited to go to work each day.
Boothby: What’s your role here? And where are we?
Harrison Kenney: I’m the creative lead at Cantina OK! Yeah, we’re in the laneway, currently, there are still a few restrictions in place. We’ve managed to secure a spot out here, we send out takeaway drinks. But we are in the alley in which Cantina OK! resides.
For people who don’t know Cantina OK!, it’s a small place.
It’s 17 square metres, maybe 16 to 17.
So you guys are getting set up for the day?
We are. Yeah, [it’s] Tuesday, but no rest for the wicked? You can always get 20 people into a small space. No matter what day of the week it is.
I guess every day is a reasonably busy day.
How many people on the bar?
Got two people behind the bar and one person who’s hosting. Anymore people behind the bar, it’s just counterintuitive. You’re like dancing around each other, just like sliding behind sweaty boys and girls. Yeah, it’s good fun. In the summertime, actually, that’s why I shave my head. I do every summer. Oh, 30 degrees in that garage? It’s crazy.
How long have you been here? Were you here when they opened?
A few weeks later, we’ve been open three years, so we opened March 1 2019. I probably joined in June.
I got a phone call from [then bar manager] Happy about a week after they opened Cantina Ok! I was actually in the night before. I got the phone call. And I was like, what did I do last night? Was I well behaved last night? I think so. Lo and behold, he called me: "how would you feel about coming to work at Cantina OK!?"
I [thought] that it’s just gonna be one of the best bars in the world.
Well, it’s got the proof — it’s been on The World’s 50 Best Bars list twice now.
Twice. [At number] 23.
What is that like as a bartender? I mean, did you notice any difference to the trade after having made the list?
I thought there was gonna be a bit more pressure at first. But day to day, it’s the same. We’ve always done what we’ve done best, just been quite humble, hospitable people.
So for people who don’t know about this place, what do you guys do here?
We serve a very micro amount of mezcal. So we travel over to Mexico several times a year and we meet these people that produce a spirit, which they call mezcal; you could argue that it’s pretty much just moonshine. It’s not really regulated by the Mexican government. The idea really is that we go in and we just meet these people that create what is the last ancient spirit left in the world. We meet the people and we come back and we tell the story. So it’s important that we stay anchored to that tradition. We shake hands with the people that make it, we watch them make it, we meet their family.
Because there’s a fair bit of exploitation that goes on in the mezcal market, right?
I mean, it’s difficult to mass produce a product that really can only be so small scale, you’re using clay pot stills and these methods that have been used for like thousands of years. It’s pretty difficult to produce it on a commercial scale.
People use the [phrase that] mezcal is wine and tequila is champagne. If you wanted to use that analogy, I would think that... I would probably say mezcal is more like natural wine. It’s wildly fermented, wildly harvested.
I think it's the last ancient spirit left in the world. That’s amazing.
Hospitality is a big thing here. I guess when you’re in such a small space, you have to be hospitality-minded?
Being in Cantina is like being around your kitchen at 2am. It’s small, it’s full of people, everyone can hear, you’re hanging out having drinks. You need to really truly believe in the hospitality that you give. You can’t fake it. It’s too obvious.
When you’re that close to people and they don’t want to be there, you know.
You can tell when you just put it on. It’s like all about genuine hospitality. And [owners] Alex [Dowd] and Jeremy [Blackmore] have taught me that.
I saw you the other day and you were talking about an experience that you had at another bar. You witnessed some poor hospitality being given to someone else.
Yeah, you left but I saw you and you’re like, I don’t want to tell other people, I’m genuinely upset.
It’s terrible when you see that kind of bad hospitality, but you looked genuinely broken.
Like don’t ride the waves if you can’t swim, you know what I mean? If you don’t want to be there, if you don’t want to give genuine hospitality, then find another industry.
You just hire people that love what they do, they love hospitality, and then you teach them how to bartend. Shaking tins is, you know you’re just reading ingredients and putting it together and shaking. You can’t teach someone natural hospitality, [they have] to have it.
It’s an attitude.
Yeah, exactly. That’s a very important part about Cantina. We live and breathe and do genuine hospitality.
Were you always looking at this as a career?
Not really. I probably got into bartending through nepotism. Because I was 18 and knew I needed money and a friend worked at a bar. I was a glassy for a year.
What did you think? Did you enjoy it?
I enjoyed it because I really liked the interaction with guests. I liked talking to people, mingling. It was exciting, every day I wanted to go into work. I didn’t want to bartender. But I knew I loved what I was doing.
Did you start bartending because that’s just what you did next?
Yeah, pretty much. [The bartenders] were having probably more fun than I was having being on the floor and just being a glassy. Like watching these cool guys shake drinks at the bar, And like, these pretty men and women. Dancing around shaking tins, laughing, having a good time. And I was like, cool — I could do that.
How do you keep up the energy? Because it’s a job with long hours, it’s hard work. There’s also the general swill of the public sometimes.
You know, I see that people really want to be here. You got to think like, we’re on Clarence Street for one, there is like 10 good bars around us, some of the best bars in the country. But people have chosen to come to Cantina — they could go anywhere — but they want to come here. I owe it to them to give them the best experience they could possibly have. Otherwise, what am I really doing?
But you know, it’s a busy bar all the time. You don’t get off days, right?
I’ll tell you, the other day I was meant to go on a break. And there was like 20 people. I mean, there was plenty people, [at] capacity inside. And there was just Margaritas going out and there’s bar chat. And I was like, I need to go on a break. [But] I was like, there’s no place I’d rather be than at Cantina OK! at this moment in time. I was like, forget about the break. Let’s just stay and just keep going on. Keep pushing forward. That’s the honest truth.
I think you just got a pay rise from the bosses.
It’s a special place.
I do want to touch on The World’s 50 Best Bars thing again. Because to me, I mean, there’s a bit of pressure with that thing. And you mentioned that before that, actually, it wasn’t as much as you might have thought it would be.
Yeah. Initially, I did think the pressure would be [more]. But day to day, it was just the same. Like, we just went in with the same mentality as we always have, like, you know, we always just want to keep doing what we’re doing. And if we get awards on the way, cool, that’s fine.
Because you know, you don’t want to turn into a bar that is hunting the awards.
There’s no plaque anywhere here, you won't see the award anywhere. We’re not about that. It’s actually [more fun] when people come in and they don’t know. People come in with a warped perspective when they know that they’re walking into a place that’s like, oh, this number on this list.
Well, that’s the thing with all those lists, like best restaurants and everything. It’s your expectations [are so high].
You want to just come in to this quiet, humble little garage, where you don’t feel like the person serving you thinks he’s better than you are. Everyone is better than I am in there, like, you all know more than me about mezcal if you want to, that’s fine. I’m not going to tell anyone how to drink their mezcal, live their life. Yeah, the thing that I noticed is the world got smaller when we made it on that list. I can reach out to people now and they will start a dialogue with me, and they’ll be open to collaborating on cocktails, like weekly specials, for instance. That’s really cool. It’s cool to see the world get smaller and to be able to talk to these people who I think are pretty amazing bartenders.
I’m stealing this from someone, but it seems to me — and it’s something I’ve experienced as well — that the people who are really good at what they do seem to be the most genuine about helping other people. Because there’s no ego involved. They tend to want to help other people.
I know, they want to see you succeed. They love that. That’s the selfish selflessness type of thing: I love being so selfless for selfish reasons. Because it makes me feel good to see you feel so good. Underneath this selflessness is actually, well, I feel pretty good about making this guy feel pretty good.
Don’t ask about my motives, you don’t want to know.
There’s something nice about that.
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