The Above Board owner talks about their nearly six year journey.
There’s a spurious statistic you’ll often hear that states that some 80 percent (some say 90 percent) of bars fail within the first year (or three years, depending on who does the telling). Whether that’s true or not, I don’t know, but what is pretty clear is that opening a bar can be tough, and opening one that lasts isn’t a guaranteed thing — and that’s before the last couple of pandemic years and all the instability that ensued.
So if a bar like Above Board in Melbourne makes it to five years old, I figure that’s something worth celebrating.
Co-owner and bartender Hayden Lambert opened the bar in November of 2016: built around a minimalist bar top ringed by just 16 seats, when it opened you’d find Hayden at his dream bar hosting the door, mixing and shaking drinks, topping up waters, and being the glassy — a one-bartender bar fuelled by his then 15-plus years of experience making cocktails at some of the best spots in the world.
Things are a little different now. The bar has another room they can use to seat guests when the original 16 seats overflow; and what was once all up to Hayden is now a work load shared by five people. Five years in, the bar continues to evolved whilst keeping true to Lambert’s original vision.
So how do you craft a bar like this — one that landed at 44 on The World’s 50 Best Bars list in 2021 — that is uniquely itself, but with the staying power to make it to its fifth and sixth birthdays?
That’s what I’m talking to Hayden about in the video and interview below, in the first in this year’s series of How To One A Bar That Lasts made possible by Bushmills.
Take a look at the full interview below, lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Sam Bygrave: I remember calling on you, on one of my first trips to Melbourne when I started writing about bars, when you were at Bar Americano — that's where we first met. We got to know each other pretty well, we were talking about bars and you told me that you wanted to open your own bar one day. And you would say you're going to open your dream bar.
Hayden Lambert: Yeah.
Now, Above Board, your bar is five years old. How'd you go on that rating of things?
I think it went beyond what we expected to be honest.
Yeah, it did. Like I mean, the cool thing about owning your dream bar is defining what your actual dream is. And I think at that time, maybe my dream bar was just opening a bar. And so that allowed it to be whatever you wanted it to be. Over time, things changed a lot in the process, because it's not just my bar anymore. It's other people's bar, too. You know, it's your business partners, it's your wife's, and so that’ll help shape what actually eventually became what we have now, which is Above Board.
For people who haven’t been here, what is Above Board about?
Well, Above Board is basically a simple distillation of what a bar can be, if you remove a lot of the elements that you think a bar should be, and it becomes more about the people. And the people are the most essential part of a bar, because otherwise you just have a storeroom for bottles. Like that's what it is. If you don't have people in a bar, it's just a storeroom for bottles. If you've got no one there, it's not a bar.
So we sat down, and we took elements that we thought were really important, you know, a sink is important in a bar. I mean, that's an element that you actually need. And then a bar top is an important part of a bar, well, you've got a bar top and we've got a sink, we're good to go. As long as you have people, you're good to go.
So if you want to open a bar, you just need a sink, a bar top, and people. Well thanks for your advice, we don't need to talk any more.
I mean when you really start breaking it down. It's probably an oversimplification of what it actually is. But when you start distilling these things down, you know, you start looking at what you actually need.
I think what happens is, we get to the point where we overfill, and I was looking at all the bars that were being overfilled with stuff. We just wanted to fill it with people, you know, to the point where it is designed 100% around how people sit, and what kind of angles that they consider, and how they interact. And then just remove the clutter. I saw the clutter as being a barricade to the people. You know, like defense mechanisms.
When we were talking about this originally, that was the era of like, bars having everything on the bar, 1000 different bitters bottles, all your fruit for the night.
Totally. Then it came back to like, what do you actually need for a bar? The three bottle bars are a great example of what you can actually accomplish with a bar. I think a lot of the time three bottle bars are like a misdirection. There's more ingredients than they talk about, like wine bottles, and all sorts of stuff. But if you're looking at the most minimalist style bar, three bottle bar, so we worked on that premise. It’s like, Okay, well, we need some shakers, you know, and then we need some bitter bottles, but do they need to be on display? Originally, the bitter bottles weren't supposed to be on display, but there's a 10 centimeter difference in between the bitter bottles and the height of the cabinetry. So they were supposed to be underneath, and it just would have been the shakers.
Does that annoy you?
No, it doesn't annoy me — now.
What was the design process like for you? For people who haven't been here, there is no back bar of bottles here. There's just a really lovely mirror and some nice plants, everything is put away in drawers, you don't have brand bottles on the bar.
I mean, that's not intentionally to you know, to be anything against brands. I just think it was the evolution from moving from Bar Americano to my own bar, it’s like the elements of Bar Americano that I truly liked was the kind of release you get from not having to worry about call brands.
But it also then also goes back to that people thing, right, there's less distraction. It's more about that interaction across the bar, which is what I've always loved about coming to this place.
I think that's it. I think we're moving away from you know, a lot of bartenders get caught in the ‘we're creative, we only make drinks’, and we forget about the hosting part. The hosting elements are a really important thing. And each one of us has a different way of interacting with people. That doesn't mean it's good or bad. It's just a different way. We're all humans, we all have to find our way making positive interactions. So for me, it was about hosting people and having the chat and expanding on what I think Bar Americano solidified for me as a bartender, you know, because I had to work by myself a lot. I had to rely on myself. Where before you’d rely on teams.
Because at Bar Americano, and here when you started, you were not just making drinks, but you were hosting, you were the glassy, you were the host. You were security if that was required.
Yeah, for sure. And I'm terrified of standing up to people. I'm only a little guy, it's not like I'm six foot and I get to look at you in the eye. I gotta look up to most people. “Hey mate, you can't come in sorry.” Like, Melbourne's full of big people. It's not a little
place. Look, I think that was probably, and will always be one of the hard things for bartenders to wrap their head around in bars like this, that one, you're center of attention and two, there's nowhere to hide. So if you don't like someone, you can't just shy away from everything, which forces you to interact and maybe change the way that you interact.
Are you less quick to judge people or something?
I think what it is, in this type of bar, you are less likely to judge people. Right? You've got to wait, you've got to wait a little while, you know, to find out what people are into.
When you first opened Above Board five years ago, what was that feeling like for you?
Man, like, without swearing? It was fucking crazy. I'm mean, going back to the beginning of the conversation, you've dreamed about it. So this is not a week dream. This is a combination of 15 plus years of, working towards that and having that as a distinct goal. And it always was out of reach, and then all of a sudden, it got into reach. And I can't remember how it got into reach, how all of a sudden the goalposts went from being unattainable to holy shit, this, this could happen next week, you know, like you're on the edge of it. Here was like that. It was really fast. The actual attainability went from, hey, we're not opening a bar, to brace yourself — we're about to open a bar. And have you thought about any of those things? There was no planning committee. There was no, you know, like, six months in a room talking about storyboards and mood boarding, and PR. This is really grassroots. This happened within five minutes. And then we sat down and we worked on the design, and then we built it, and there was no hey, by the way, do we have electrical? Do we have a sign? There was a list of things that we needed to do that we never ever talked about.
Do you think that was good in that, like that compressed timeframe meant you just went ahead?
Yeah, I think I think what happens is a lot of people get into that the cerebral part where they overthink it. There's a lot of over-thought. And then you know—
Should I do this, should I not?
100 percent. Yeah, and I think we got to the point where one financially, it was unavoidable to do some of the things that we had to do, right? It was unavoidable, cash just doesn't come out of the sky. I wish I could grab all of it. But some of the choices that we made in here are due to financial restrictions, and if the financial restrictions didn't exist, it would be very different. So I think that kind of like construct of being confined to a limited amount of cash or money in general, you know, we're not talking $50, but just look at that that way. And then, by the way, here's the planning. Okay, we've got the space, we've got a timeline, our timeline was really higgledy-piggledy — the beginning of it was such a rush, Sam, it was like, get it in, get it in, get it in. And I remember showing you the bar top, and the bar top was here for five months before we actually got open. I had to do some cash jobs. I had to look after family.
And it just became this... I didn't think about it. It was just done, and, you know, Okay, what's your next thing today? What's the next thing? And then you're open. So you haven't given yourself time to absorb the pressures [like] am I good enough for it? That comes way later, like five years later. Five years later, you're like, Oh, can I do it?
Were you able to give yourself time to pause? Once the door was open for the first night and first week, let's say first week of service?
No, not a chance. I think we opened up late November 2016. So I would have turned 38. And then we bounced straight through. And I closed because I had to go back to the UK. So I closed for the last part of Christmas and early January. And then I didn't even think about it, then. Because you'd only been open, you'd only done 20 services or 30 services, maybe even less. And I'd done a lot of that by myself. I don't overanalyze what's happening at the time. And then it's only later that I reflect, you know, like when I have downtime and stuff like that, but you reflect and you go, I wish I had done that better. But I'm also glad that we just came out of the gate without any restrictions.
If you stop and think too much you can get you can overcorrect and overcorrect to the point of being not correct.
Yeah, for sure.
But also the financial restrictions that imposes a sort of discipline. And you’ve got to be creative, like you would be with your cocktails, where you have a few ingredients, and that's it.
That is also something that reflects what the bar is, it's constraint, it's educated constraint. You can make amazing cocktails with products that you have in your bar.
So you're at five years now, how has Above Board and the idea of Above Board, how has that changed in your mind, since when you first opened the doors to today? Because there's always an evolution that goes on with a bar, people come in, everyone adds their own little bit to the place, it evolves a bit and grows.
I think the great thing about any type of bar, as you said, is that the people who work in it inhabit it and make it a space. And sometimes that's good. And sometimes that's bad. The chemistry amongst people is really important, you know. So there's some really tough lessons that I've learned, but each person brings their character, their sense of what this space is.
Because you're trying to employ people — and this is one of the big things — that work within the space, and they get it, they're okay with talking to people. They don't have to be me, it's not important that it's me, man. It's Above Board, you know, it’s not ‘Hayden's Bar’ — Hayden's bar exists in my house. Each one of the staff has to bring their own personality and find their way. Some of them are really good at the detail, and then just a quick chat. But they're held up by someone who's bigger chat and big with laughter. I think sometimes it's realising that you don't always have to be in someone's face.
I think the killer is that I came out of Bar Americano with a confidence that I could hold three people's attention and get them to come back time and time again. And now that's different. I don't need to hold three people's attention.
Well, when you're at the stage at the start when when you've just opened, holding three people's attention is important because it stops them looking around going, why isn't anyone else here?
Yeah, exactly. But you also have a space that doesn't feel cavernous when there's only a couple of you, right? And one of the maybe one of the great examples of the Above Board mentality is that people come by themselves just to hang out. And they don't need you to talk to them the whole time. They're very comfortable sitting in this space. So it's very interesting to see that but coming back to how it's changed — it's changed immensely. Because I don't have 100% ownership of anymore. Yeah I have ownership of it as a business, but I don't have ownership of the direction. I can't control that — I can do my best to kind of push it in the right direction.
How does that feel as someone because it was very much the Hayden Lambert bar when it opened, how does that feel letting go a bit of that control? I suppose it's useful to have, so it can have a life.
It's freeing. It's so freeing, because as I said, I don't think I ever thought about the bar in terms of... I just thought I was gonna be here forever. You know, like, I'm going to be here, it's going to be me and I'd never thought about the success of it.
I just thought I'm gonna go make drinks, because that's what I do. I don't do anything else. My whole life is maybe some Call of Duty, hanging out, I do lift some weights every once in a while, put on weight, lose weight, put on weight, lose weight, come to work. And I've got a family and all that kind of stuff in between. I didn't see myself as not being a physical part of it every day. And the removal of me being a physical part of it, it's its own validation of its success, right?
Because I never thought about success. I never thought about it as a successful operation. I never thought about a queue. I never thought there would ever be a queue for a bar that has 16 seats, because so many people were down on me in the beginning that like, how are you going to open a bar with 16 seats? How's that guy ever gonna make any money? Do you even do you even know what you're doing? That was the feedback.
That was the chat around town, like why would you open a bar 16 seats?
Because I'm Hayden, I'm not everybody else. If I was everybody else, it wouldn't be the same thing.
That’s good advice.
Be yourself. Be the thing that everyone expects you not to be, the one odd part of your brain is the part you want to emphasise. You want to be yourself. But you know, the one thing is I never thought about success. I never thought about the money. This was never about money. I've never made a decision in my life that's been good based on cash. Never. Not one, not one. If you said hey, by the way, I'm going to offer you $200 million to do a thing — it would fail so quickly. You could give me the money, it would fail. To tell me that you said, “You know what? We're going to open a bar. It's going to cost two bucks.” That would work.
What we’re drinking
Bushmills Single Malt Irish Whiskey 10 Year Old is triple distilled from a mash of malted barley before being matured for at least 10 years in both former bourbon and sherry casks. It offers up a light, fruity aroma on the nose, with honey, vanilla and milk chocolate flavours on the palate.