‘There’s got to be different ways of doing things.’ Ryan Chetiyawardana talks reinvention, and what hospitality really means

He’s the influential bartender and creative behind some of the world’s best bars.

‘There’s got to be different ways of doing things.’ Ryan Chetiyawardana talks reinvention, and what hospitality really means

You can listen to this episode in the player here, or take a listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music and on Android.

When we think of great bars, we often think of those places that have longevity, that stick around for decades — the kind of place that becomes an institution. Then there are those select few bars that, when they open their doors, they blow the whole thing open and introduce us to a new way of drinking and sometimes, even a new way of thinking and seeing.

That’s what the London bar White Lyan did when it opened in Hoxton in 2013. Ryan Chetiyawardana — along with Australian expat bartender Iain Griffiths — was the driving force behind the venue, and it quickly became known as the place that had no fresh citrus, no ice, no perishables, no brands. All the drinks were pre-batched, but as Chetiyawardana points out in the latest episode of Drinks At Work, to focus on those elements was to miss the point.

As he told me in 2014, the day after they’d won Best New International Cocktail Bar at Tales of the Cocktail’s Spirited Awards, the real idea is to look after people.

“The skill to me in a bartender isn’t the ability to put together a drink,” he says. “The skill for me is to be able to read people. You could sit at the bar and I could ask you a hundred questions, and you would get the perfect drink — and you would be bored to fuck. Or, you’ve got a bartender who comes in, makes you feel relaxed, and almost passively without you knowing about it, is assessing what you’re mood is, and is trying to help you to a place where you are happier. And that’s a shit-tonne of experience, you can’t just throw people into that.”

Well, a lot has changed in the world of bars since White Lyan debuted. Pre-batching drinks is no longer the heresy it once was, and more than ever bartenders talk about the desire to host their guests, rather than bore them to death with verbal essays on the origin of drinks don’t want.

Ryan has also gone on to do a lot more than that bar. For one, rather than setting it on the course to institution status, he killed White Lyan a few years into its game-changing run. His other world-beating bar, Dandelyan — which landed at number one on The World’s 50 Best Bars list in 2018 — suffered a similar fate, making way for Lyaness (which, not coincidentally, is one of my favourite bars to visit in the world).

So in this episode we talk about those decisions to kill things off at their peak, we talk about creativity, invention and reinvention, where the next big explosion in drinking trends will come from, and what hospitality — a term that is bandied about by many — really means.

Below, I’ve got a few highlights from the conversation, but the full episode is worth a listen — Ryan’s a thinker, he loves the industry, and he has insights galore.

Ryan Chetiyawardana. Photo: Supplied
Ryan Chetiyawardana. Photo: Supplied

“I jumped around as much as I could.”

Before White Lyan, Ryan worked his way around a number of venues and different styles of service. It’s a recurring theme in the interviews I’ve done with people at the top of their game, and like others Ryan has worked in dive bars, hotel bars, small creative cocktail bars — the lot.

“I had a thirst for trying to absorb every style of venue,” he says. “I loved all of it.”

And I think that informs the way service is run in his bars. Whether it’s the smart and grand bar that is Lyaness, on the banks of the Thames in the heart of London, or the playful and neon-lit Super Lyan in Amsterdam, I’ve always found a warm welcome, service that tries to understand you (rather than the other way around) and drinks, which despite often being informed by a high concept, taste delicious.

“Why are we forced to listen to jazz?”

Another element to each of the Mr Lyan bars is a commitment to come at things from an unexplored angle. White Lyan, as he says in the podcast, came about after talks with friends who weren’t in the industry, as a way to combat some of the stuffiness and seriousness that was sucking the fun from the experience of cocktail bars.

“There’s got to be a different way of doing things,” he says.

But after the success of both White Lyan and Dandelyan, the things for which they were once labelled as bar heretics — bartenders destroying the industry by taking away the theatrics of making a cocktail in front of the guest — were soon adopted by other bars.

“We were called heretic when we started,” Ryan says, “and then four years in at White Lyan people were like, ‘yeah, that’s totally normal.’ That was a big surprise to us. It became normal.”

So what did they do? They took the bars out the back and put them down, and reopened with new concepts in place.

“It’ll be about the sharing of knowledge.”

I don’t know if it’s the internet and the ease and speed at which information travels around, or if it’s the pressures of performing well on social media, but drinks around the world are starting to look alike. Batching has become standard procedure in many bars, most bars at least tip their cap towards the sustainability gods. So where does Ryan think the next round of trends and new thinking is going to come from?

“Diversity,” he says. “It’s going to come from different backgrounds.”

Chefs and bartenders are exactly alike, he says, and he’s tired of this idea that bartenders need to learn more from chefs.

“What’s exciting is going outside of that set of people,” he says. So he suggests looking into fields outside of hospitality, and into cultures and ingredients different from one’s own, provided that you engage and share information — rather than just take or appropriate.

How can you do that without making something cringey or — worse — just outright stealing from others?

“Don’t ask somebody to do your homework,” he says. If you are genuinely sharing knowledge with others, come to the table with something of your own.

“If you’re asking them to just tell you all of the things that they’ve spent a lifetime researching or building up as a knowledge set, that’s just rude,” Ryan says. “If you’re asking them to kind of help you though, and you’re like, Oh, I tried all these things, you’ve been exploring this — you treat them like an individual — [then] you have this amazing knowledge share that happens. And as long as it feels like it’s fair, [that] you’re not just taking all this stuff, [otherwise] that’s where it comes into appropriation.”

In other news

The 10 Australian finalists for this year’s Patron Perfectionists comp have been announced: congrats to Alex Boon, Kayla Reid, Andie Bulley, Bec Bayley, Chris Tilley, Etien Celzner, Haadee Bahar, Martin McConnell, Storm Evans, and Talis Heggart on making it through, and keep an eye out for a more detailed feature on the finalists coming to Boothby next week.

The World’s 50 Best Bars 2022 were awarded earlier this month in Barcelona, and I was lucky to be there in person in my role as an academy chair for 50 Best — a huge congrats to Sydney bars Cantina OK! (number 41) and Maybe Sammy (number 29) on making a very tough list this year. I’ll have more on what 50 Best is all about next week — I just need to decipher my notes from a heady few days in Barcelona.

One of the all time greats, Krystal Hart, is leaving her role as Diageo’s World Class ambassador and trade advocacy manager. She capped off an impressive innings at Diageo and Sweet & Chilli — of some nine years — with the global World Class finals in Sydney back in September. Stellar effort, Stel. As to what she does next? Krystal is heading to Campari to spearhead their advocacy efforts.

Two new venues open in Sydney this week: Ginny’s Canoe Club, the next bar from the team behind Sydney favourite Old Mate’s Place are soft opening this weekend, and you can find out what to expect when they open next week in this story here.  

And todays sees The Charles Grand Brasserie, and Tiva, opening next door to Sammy Junior in the CBD. Veteran bartender and drinks writer Jono Carr is on board as the group’s beverage director, so expect delicious drinks to emerge from both bar and restaurant.

The Espy is up for sale, and you can get your hands on a piece of Melbourne drinking history for a healthy $70-odd million. The Sand Hill Road Group brought the venue back to life, purchasing it for something in the neighbourhood of $13 million and reopening it in 2018; they’ve since leased the site to Australian Venue Company for 20 years, and now are looking to pass it on to a new owner. This isn’t that notable, other than the eye-watering sums that will change hands.

Regal Rogue is launching a their first collaboration with Starward Whisky and Crawley’s Syrups, the Regal Rogue Bold Aged Amaro, at the end of this month.

In overseas developments, Sean Muldoon — instrumental in making The Merchant Hotel in Belfast one of the world’s best bars back in the late ‘aughts, and founding co-owner of New York’s Dead Rabbit — is leaving New York for Charleston in South Carolina to open a new bar with longtime Dead Rabbit bartender and manager Jillian Vose. It’s called Hazel & Apple.

Got news on new venues, drinks, menus, and movement? I’d love to hear about it — you can get me on sam@boothby.com.au.