AnEdinburgh institution for nearly 20 years, Rick’s was a cocktail bar par excellence with a long list of regulars and a very well-regarded restaurant and hotel to boot.
It would take a bold man, then, to consider tinkering with such a winning formula, but that’s precisely what David Johnston – Development Director for the bar’s parent group Montpeliers – has done, relaunching the Frederick Street venue last month as Rabble.
The thinking behind the name? Well, Montpeliers like to be a little bit subtle, as they were with Rick’s, which was short for Frederick’s. That name and the new one were both inspired by the man the street takes its name from, Frederick Prince of Wales. ‘The rabble’ is the phrase Frederick and his 18th century contemporaries would have used to describe the common drinkers of the day. The son of King George II, Frederick was a noted raconteur and libertine who died young before he could succeed his father. In short, if he were somehow to be transported 260-odd years into the future, he’s exactly the sort of chap who would find himself very much at home in Rabble.
Head along the right side of the sloping street in the capital’s New Town, step down the stairs and you’re ushered into a space that’s chic, spacious and welcoming all at once. Past visitors will immediately note the huge transformation the venue has undergone, the most notable change being the relocation of the main bar from the left side of the room to the centre, but there’s a lot more to it than that.
Rick’s was far from dingy, but Rabble is remarkably bright and well-lit, more than any subterranean space has a right to be. It’s an effect achieved via lighting – obviously – in addition to a colour scheme that blends whites and creams with greens and turquoises. Those colours are also present in the huge floor-to-ceiling wall of glass bottles that greet you on your left side when you enter. From the outside terrace to the main bar and the lightwell-illuminated space through the back, there is greenery in abundance, and the combined effect is almost enough to lull you into thinking you’re at a garden party. With leather seating and large umbrellas the terrace provides both comfort and shelter, but it’s the space at the rear, down beyond where the new Staropramen tank beer containers sit, that’s arguably the jewel in the crown, the natural light spilling over long dining tables, mosaic floor tiles and a wide white cabinet filled with more plants and bottles.
Montpeliers engaged Jim Hamilton Design. Jim told DRAM, “The main objective was to completely transform the previous layout. The structures had been broken down into distinct areas – a front space, a back space, a middle space – and we wanted it to flow more. We talked early on about the menu and the tank beer and we wanted it to be very much about people watching, and for people to be comfortable dining at the bar. Often the bar is too high or too low, and we wanted to get the height right so that people could sit and eat. The bar has concrete slabs at the top and bottom and brass sandwiched in between. With the brass we went through lots of samples to make sure we got the particular polished finish we were after. As for the booth seating it’s almost like a leather saddle, and it’s deliberately open at the bottom to create space. ‘Rough luxe’ is essentially what we were aiming for, burnished brass in amongst plywood, things like that.”
Jim identifies raising the back room, which was previously accessed down some steps, and the creation of an island bar as the key strategic changes. He expanded, “We had to bring the back room screaming and kicking into the entire room, as I always thought it was a bit of a social misnomer.
“In the past reception was at the bar, which was revolutionary at the time, but it was negative as well as positive. How people deal with hotels has changed. I always thought it was imposing that when you were up at the bar you stared at the wall and turned your back on the space. People might not notice, but we’ve also moved the doors slightly so they’re nearer the centre of the axis. The overall goal was to give the place new life, and with that in mind we’ve also freshened up the rooms.”
The refurbishment is the embodiment of ‘Good to Great’, the corporate strategy adopted by David and Montpeliers last year in the wake of the mooted takeover by Revolution Bars falling through. (See page 14). And the transformation of Ricks into Rabble firmly draws a line under that awkward period, and also signifies a change of direction for the group.
Rick’s was known for being a cocktail bar, but the new Rabble is going down a completely different route. Anyone with a passing interest in the bar trade knows that tank beer is the ‘in thing’ of the moment, but the team behind Rabble have put more rather than thought into their installation of the Staropramen tank than that. Research trips to the likes of Chicago and Denver, described by David as being ‘ten years ahead’ of where we’re at in the UK, have demonstrated that the potential of tank beer is best realised when combined with flavoursome food. Accordingly, rotisserie meats – prepared on apparatus specially imported from France – plays a big part on Rabble’s menu. Behind the bar the emphasis is more on quality than quantity, with the number of beers on tap having been trimmed down to ten – five permanent and five rotational.
David stresses that he wants Rabble to be known as a bar that happens to have rooms first and foremost, rather than a bar/hotel, his ideal being to recreate the feel of an old-fashioned coach inn where patrons could drop in for a meal and decide quite abruptly to stay the night. But will those patrons mind being referred to as ‘a rabble’? Well, if the food, drink and atmosphere are all as good as they look, they won’t care what you call them.