A good bar, says Jim Romdall, is an octopus bar. Like the college dive he worked at a decade ago, where the barman would spend his shift in cramped quarters, rapidly extending his arms left, right, overhead, and beneath the counter to reach for glassware and ingredients, barely moving his feet for hours at a time. Most bars are either jimmied into any available space or conceived by an architect, leaving drink makers with a beautiful setup and no good place to put the trash bin.
These days Romdall co-owns Vessel, the vaunted Fifth Avenue cocktail haunt that shuttered in December 2010 and is making its long-awaited return in a new space at Seventh and Olive. The reinvention provided him with the rarest of bartender opportunities—a chance to actually help design the space where he plies his trade. The result: a host of ergonomic flourishes guaranteed to thrill Vessel’s rotating lineup of bartenders and aid in the reasonably brisk production of precisely crafted drinks.
Admittedly, some of Romdall’s designs “are about putting service above speed.” The 24-foot-long, madrona-wood-topped bar holds supplies within arm’s reach and minimizes the number of times Romdall and his cohorts turn their backs on the room. The perforated steel rail where drinks are made is flush with the wood bartop, since Romdall wanted to remove any barriers between the person making a drink and the person consuming it. And instead of taking up valuable bar real estate, drinks destined for customers wait discreetly on a low platform, leaving more room for cocktail aficionados to line up and watch the shaking and stirring in action.
At the original Vessel, says Romdall’s business partner Clark Niemeyer, “everybody always wanted to be where the energy was. We wanted to find a space where 70 people could be at the bar.” In addition to the standing-room setup that surrounds the bar, a sleek 50-seat dining area also serves lunch and dinner.
The energy may be at the bar, but the show continues in a sunken room in the back. A large window opening up to Seventh Avenue gives passersby a chance to marvel at the chain-saw action that accompanies the bar’s ice-making program. Inside is a Clinebell machine that freezes hulking blocks of pristine, perfectly clear ice; Romdall only needs one hand to list the number of other bars in the country that possess one of these. Suspended from the ceiling is a block-and-tackle system for sliding these 300-pound beasts across the room, so chain-saw-wielding individuals, then a band saw in the corner (or a dexterous hand), can produce even smaller cubes, spheres, spears, or gemstonelike shapes designed to keep drinks cool and undiluted for the optimal amount of time. This back room, dubbed the Lab, is also a space for bartenders to experiment with bitters, tinctures, and foams.
For drinkers not indoctrinated into the cult of the cocktail, this den of custom-chiseled ice and $12 libations could come off as a Portlandia-appropriate brand of pretension. Most customers will never notice all the details Romdall put into his bar (okay, they’ll probably notice the sawing), but he hopes the net result is a space that feels welcoming rather than imposing, even for patrons who just want to end the workday with a beer or are ambivalent about which gin goes into their martinis—a hangout where the ice cubes just happen to be perfectly shaped.