Design Focus: The Empress

Bar Empress 1

Edinburgh’s Broughton Street is known for its cool, eclectic mix of craft beer bars, trendy pubs and tattoo parlours. Despite its regal name, the latest addition to this cool quarter of the Capital’s East End – The Empress – fits in seamlessly. Owned by the Landmark Pub Company, who also own other city favourites No 1 High Street and Jeremiah’s Taproom, the new bar replaces the former Mathers Bar.

Landmark Pub Company Director, Grant James MacDonald, told DRAM, “Mathers was basically a boozer that did sport. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that – we operate Mathers at the West End as well and it will never change – but we felt this bar could be doing so much more.

“Broughton Street has been up-and-coming for a long time and we had to tap into that.”

The inspiration for the bar’s design is based around its chosen ‘Empress’ and marketing symbol, American circus performer turned tattoo artist Maud Wagner, who began her trade in the early 1900s.

The concept was brought to Grant and Landmark’s Business Development Manager, Jane Corrigan, by Grant Rough of Edinburgh-based designers Rough Design.

Grant Rough, who also worked on No 1 High Street and Jeremiah’s Taproom, said, “The original Mathers was quite male-orientated so we wanted to give it a more female-friendly angle but still have an edge, and also keep the history of the place. I came across a photo of Maud and thought she was a really interesting character who was from that 1900s era but also quite modern. We wanted the bar to have an interesting, underlying story but not in an obvious way so we borrowed elements from Maud’s life. Grant and Jane loved the concept because Maud dared to be a bit different.”

Tattoo-covered Maud’s air of sophistication and cool is embodied by The Empress’ design, which blends the old and new with plenty of fun, eclectic touches.

Adding to its early 1900s-feel, several original features of Mathers have remained, such as the original exposed stone wall, glass chandeliers, radiators, brown ceramic wall tiles and the solid mahogany bar top.

Local artist Will McEvoy was commissioned by Rough Design to create a portrait of Maud, which has been transferred onto a large canvas of old scaffolding boards to give it an antique look. It hangs on the exposed stone wall opposite the bar and is illuminated by a long strip of red lighting hidden by a row of high banquette seating.

Grant said, “We just love the image. It worked really well and so many customers comment on it. Maud dared to be different and I think the overriding feeling we had when we were talking design was we had to dare to be a wee bit bold, brave and different by introducing new things because a lot of people will know and remember it as Mathers.”

Injections of colour come from the new banquette seating, which are a mix of purple, mustard yellow and turquoise around the front and back section of the bar. While much of the furniture is new, including the bespoke herringbone wooden table tops, other items have been recycled. Old bar stools have been re-upholstered in an eclectic mix of colours, which reflects the overall colour scheme of bold, clashing colours that would look right at home in one of Maud’s tattoos.

A favourite feature of owner Grant’s is two old, red velvet cinema seats bought at auction which have been installed in the raised back section of the bar beside the one original piece of furniture kept from Mathers – a small green and black round table. “You are always interested to see where people navigate when you re-open and these seats are a big hit!” he added.

Some more quirky touches devised by Rough Design also include a red neon arrow pointing to the raised back section of seating, which also has pictures of other female tattooists from the 1900’s and various tattoo designs, and a big black cinema-style letters board above the staircase, created by Will, which currently reads “Empress of Broughton Street: Craft and Cocktails Every Damn Day”.

Will’s work is also seen on the cocktail menu boards which are framed in the old backboard frames from Mathers. They have a peacock and flower design, in the style of the kind of old-fashioned tattoo Maud may once have inked, painted on the wall beside and over the frame. This design is also transferred onto the back window and the food menu.

Rough Design also ripped out the old gantry and replaced with rough wood shelving and contains a row of six beer taps set on a white brick facade, which makes use of the limited space in the small bar. The wall has been left stripped back with a faint outline from the old gantry – another nod to Mathers – is still visible at the very top.

Landmark’s key focus is to stock locally where possible. The 50-seat bar also adopts the craft beer and cocktail concept that has been a success at Jeremiah’s Taproom. As well as five fixed taps it has eight rotational cask and craft taps, which include local brews from Pilot, Alechemy Brewing and Campervan Brewery. The Empress also stocks coffee from Leith-based Williams and Johnson Coffee Roasters, and tea from Rosevear of Broughton Street.

Grant added, “If we can sell a lot of local product then that’s the way forward because there’s a real community around here. There is place for what we did before but we wanted to go an extra step and offer craft beer and cocktails and casual dining done well. Overall the reactions have been great, we’re much busier than we were as Mathers.”