The Mystery and Allure Behind the Speakeasy: Zack Labadie on Big In Japan

By Reggie Woo


Reggie Woo

August 21, 2017

Posted in Restaurant Management, Industry & Culture

So, what is a memorable experience you’ve had at a restaurant or bar?

One that’s really memorable to me is going to Big In Japan Bar in Montreal.

How did you find this place?

I’ll start with some context. This was a few years ago. I was with my girlfriend. We were both actually 20 (years old), so we were underage in America when we were in Montreal. We were very inexperienced with bars and all that. We didn’t know what we were looking for. We thought it would be fun to check out a speakeasy that we had heard about but never actually been to ourselves, being so young.

I don’t know if it was Yelp, or some sort of Thrillist-type Internet search, but we found it on a list of Montreal bars. So, we went to check it out. At first, we couldn’t actually find it, but they have a sibling restaurant—some sort of ramen place—next door, which was much easier to find. We thought we went to the wrong place at first, and ended up getting ramen. Then, as we were leaving, we managed to find the door to the speakeasy. We almost missed it.

Was it just an unmarked door?

It was a completely unmarked door with just a guy outside with like with a clicker and that’s it. No signage or anything like that. It was looked like it was just a cement wall, which is why we almost missed it.

There are a lot of places like that where you really have to know where you are going.

I think that’s definitely part of the allure of the whole thing. It was very surprising and cool to us, especially as younger people who weren’t really experienced with that kind of concept. I feel like now, it is fairly popular to have speakeasies that have hidden doors or backrooms. That was totally cool to us.

Have you been to Big In Japan multiple times?

No, that was the first and only time.

What did it feel like to walk into that? I’m sure you had no idea what to expect.

That was very cool. It was, like I said, totally unmarked. We just asked the guy, “Hey, are you working the door for a bar? What’s going on here?” He let us in and, if I remember correctly, we walked through some heavy curtains. It was a very big, open, dimly lit room. It was all candlelit with incandescent lighting and very quiet.

It was very unlike anywhere we had gone. Again, we were pretty young, so most of our experiences until then with bars were at pubs or restaurants we had been in. More generic, not lower class but not like a cocktail bar. It was totally different and it was very cool.

So this was very sophisticated?

Yeah, and they had a pretty sophisticated classic cocktail menu as well, which, again, as younger people, we were not used to that. It was a very limited menu. I think we ended up getting a Manhattan and an Old Fashioned. The ambiance was great—it was very quiet and intimate. It facilitated a lot of conversation, which was very different from a lot of bars that are more themed or high-energy. It was a lot more about sitting face-to-face and enjoying the drinks.

I feel that’s something that speakeasies are more built for. They promote more close and intimate interactions vs. more lively bars that are geared to be for larger groups and feeling like you’re at a party.

Yeah, it was very intimate. Even though it was mostly my girlfriend and I talking to each other, we were in very close proximity to other people who were having their own hushed conversations. It was weirdly personal and communal at the same time.

Do you think that affected the way that you interacted with your bartender?

They actually had multiple waiters and waitresses going around. They didn’t have any kind of food program or anything, but, instead of a central bar, it was small tables. We were sitting at pretty low two or four person tables.

So they didn’t have a bartop?

I think there was a central bar, but that was like half of the capacity of the place. The rest were small tables.

And they didn’t have any food or anything?

Looking at their website recently, it looks like they expanded their menu in terms of drinks. But, when we went, I remember there were only like four or five options like Manhattan’s and Old Fashioned’s.

I think, when speakeasies were coming back into fashion, that was a lot more common. It’s part of the allure of it.

Yeah, a very classic style but no frills. Just good cocktails.

Do you remember the drinks that you had vividly or, after having multiple cocktails over the years, do you feel like the memory has faded?

I’m not sure. I think that was the first real properly-made cocktail that I had, because, as I said, I was like 20 years old, and was used to cheap beer. I think that, more than the taste of the cocktail, that’s what really stood out to me: just a really well-made classic cocktail.

Did they just have classic cocktails or did they have their own creations?

Just classic cocktails. Looking at their menu now, I think they have some original cocktails and a wider menu. I remember being surprised at how small the selection was. It seemed very curated.

You mentioned looking at the menu now. Do you think you’d like to try it again to see the difference or would you not want to?

I think it would be definitely worth going back for comparison’s sake, because it has been four years now and I would like to see what’s changed about it. But, at the same time, half of the draw of it and the reason why that experience has stuck with me since then is that I had no expectations and didn’t know what to expect. The whole thing was kind of like a surprise.

Did your server try to educate you about what they were doing?

Now that you mention it, no. Now that I’ve had more experience with bars and restaurants, I know that places like Drink has a very personal exchange between their bartenders and their clientele. But, this place was a little larger, so I think that’s why it was more of a typical service exchange.

When I looked this place up on Google, I saw a lot of interesting things about it. I saw that it was actually recommended by Anthony Bourdain in an episode of The Layover or something like that. But, at the same time, I saw really bad things about it. One of the first things that popped up was a negative Eater article explaining how Yelp was warning people about how bad this place was.

I noticed that when I Googled it too. Because in my mind it was a great experience, I didn’t have much context for comparison granted. But, I was surprised at how many mediocre the Yelp reviews were.

I feel like there probably was some turnover at the management level or something must have happened where the standards or the character of the place had changed.

It had been a while, so I wonder if anything has changed.

I did look at Yelp and the recent reviews. (To be fair, I think most of Yelp is garbage.) Most of the recent reviews have been pretty positive, so I feel like they must have reacted to that article and made changes. I feel like that happens pretty often actually. A lot of the times, it has to do with the management where the character will completely change.

I imagine it’s hard to maintain that character too, especially when you’re trying to go for that exclusive, special vibe like a speakeasy.

For speakeasies though, the standard is usually very high. Which is why I was more surprised than anything to see the things people were saying in negative reviews. Especially that they were having issues with health inspections and things of that nature.

That’s too bad to hear that recent transition has happened. That makes me not want to go back—to preserve the memory.

Well, based on the recent reviews I saw, things look to have changed for the better. (At least I hope so.) You’d be surprised, but a lot of it has to do with the management or whoever’s running it. That’s how the standards can lapse and slip, which is unfortunate. It’s part of the industry. Is there any places around here that you feel like had a similar feeling?

I feel like Drink is the next evolution of that experience where there is a similar atmosphere but an even more attention given to the cocktails and the mixology. Just based on my memory of Big In Japan and what we were just talking about with their extended menu and whether or not they have changed recently.

I will say that it’s interesting that speakeasies are recently starting to fall out of favor in the sense that people are deciding that the “fad” is over now.

You definitely get that vibe, which is why I’m struggling to think of other places like Big In Japan. Which is probably why other speakeasies haven’t quite lived up to that expectation. It’s less of a special thing, which is kind of the draw. I recently went to a speakeasy in Somerville.

Saloon? It’s the only one I remember there. It’s where you go down these stairs and it’s in a place with a small performance theatre. Is that what you are talking about?

We went there and then we went to another bar close by. I did not like Saloon that much. It just seemed more like a typical bar, but was more hard to find.

I think what I really liked about Big In Japan and what draws me to speakeasies in general was that sense that we’re going there for a different experience, a more intimate experience. Whether that’s more consideration towards the cocktails and a more personalized experience with a bartender or just being able to sit and talk and enjoy a drink without an overwhelming atmosphere. I think it just facilitates conversation in a way that’s more interesting than other places.

A little more meaningful than normal.

Exactly. It’s more of an event or an engagement rather than just going to a place to spend money for alcohol.

For more insight into the experiences of a guest, check out other entries in our The Guest Perspective series.

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