I love Mad Men. I’m partly drawn to it because I work in the world of marketing, so I love watching the creativity of the characters (especially Don Draper) at work. I also love the fashion of the era. But more than anything, I’m really interested in the culture of the ’50s. It was a time when every night, the family sat down for dinner together, without distractions, to a home-cooked meal.
I freely admit that there are lots of things that don’t make me nostalgic for the ’50s, but I do love that era because there was an attitude of slowing down, of appreciating the finer things in life. Dinner out would require you to get dressed up and go to a lovely restaurant with an elegant, multi-course meal and dancing and cocktails with your significant other.
This slower way of life gave way to a much faster one. As women began working more and more outside the home, frozen and convenience food and fast food restaurants crept more and more into our homes.
It feels like, lately, there has been a bit of a pendulum swing back to the older, slower way of doing things. This has spawned the slow food movement, the craft beer movement, and now, the slow cocktail movement. Many restaurants now pride themselves on sourcing ingredients that are locally grown, sustainably harvested, and fresh. They make as much as possible in-house, instead of ordering frozen or convenience food, which can be more cost-effective. They do it because they know (and we know) that local, slow, fresh, and in-house tastes better, and it’s better for us and our local economy.
One person who is pioneering the slow cocktail movement here in Vancouver is Jay Jones. His impressive resume includes various Top Table Group restaurants, Salt Tasting Room, The Loden, The Shangri-La and, of course, the Pourhouse. He now calls The Donnelly Group home, as their Executive Bartender and Brand Ambassador.
While Donnelly, a locally-owned franchise, now boasts 19 locations, each is different. It’s not a cookie-cutter franchise. The most recent to open is The Blackbird, in the heart of Vancouver’s Financial District.
What’s interesting about The Blackbird, is that it’s five businesses in one: they have a old-school barbershop, an upscale casual restaurant, a pub complete with billiards, a scotch bar and, on the weekends, a dance club.
I recently got to hang out at The Blackbird with Jay for an afternoon, and the drinks, the food, the service and the room were outstanding.
The space hearkens back to an old-school New York steakhouse, with tons of dark marble, deep dark leather bucket chairs, banquettes, and loads of polished brass. There are more than 20 beers on tap, and a fresh oyster bar featuring local bivalves.
The menu is a mix of regular pub favourites: a really good burger, made fresh daily, ground in house, a french dip, a chicken and brie sandwich. You can also find pasta, fish, steak frites, wings, pizza, fish and chips, and roasted chicken. The menu is also peppered with old-school favourites that hark back to those nostalgic ’50s, but with a modern twist. There’s a shrimp cocktail, for example, but it’s not served in a cocktail glass, and it comes with a little side of tossed greens. They have their own take on a wedge salad: iceburg lettuce, beef, garlic croutons, double smoked bacon, and a blue cheese dressing. There’s a steak tartare, served with black garlic and a quail’s egg on top. There are old-school omelettes and steak and potatoes.
For those of you who are more daring, there are more modern classics, like cous-cous crusted sweetbreads with preserved lemon, or their take on a spaghetti Bolognese made with octopus. Everything is done with attention to detail.
Spaghetti Bolognese with Octopus
That attention to detail carries over to Jones’ cocktail menu. They have an extensive beer and wine menu as well, much of it locally-sourced. But if you’re going to The Blackbird, Jones is the best in the city, so you might as well put yourself in his hands.
The cocktail list is divided into four sections: Zero-proof (no alcohol), Light, Firm and Umami.
The Pigalle, one of the “Light” cocktails, is Jones’ answer to The Cosmopolitan, that pink drink made oh-so-famous by Carrie Bradshaw. Jones, by the way, credits Sex and the City for helping to launch the cocktail renaissance. It’s made with gin instead of vodka, and the colour and depth of flavour come from raspberry vinegar instead of cranberry juice. It’s finished with passion fruit syrup and fresh lime.
To make: shake thoroughly but briefly with ice, and then fine strain into a cocktail glass.
The Bard is his modern take on A Manhattan. A traditional Manhattan is made with whisky, vermouth, and bitters. Jones uses 12-year-old single malt scotch in his.
For me, though, the ultimate cocktail is The Four Horsemen. It’s Jones’ signature drink, and there’s a reason. Originally created at the end of 2012, when the Mayan calendar forecast the end of the world, this tribute to the Apocalypse is a wonderful way to finish of your night. It marries Maker’s 46 bourbon, averna amaro, giffard abricot de roussillon liqueur, and Angostura bitters, to create a lively, complex cocktail with unimaginable depth of flavour.
Whether you are looking for a old favourites or new classics, The Blackbird is a place that will bear repeated visits and many hours of slow, happy savouring.
Address: 905 Dunsmuir Street, Vancouver
Sunday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.
Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.
Holidays, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m.