In the first of a bar review series teeming with tales of mirth from far-flung watering holes, a professional nomad (barely) recalls a night in Berlin when even the powers of James Bond and a Pick-up Artist’s handbook could not help him quite remember a night out at one of the world’s best cocktail bars.
Rolling over and finding yourself in bed with an empty bottle of the German-equivalent of JC Le Roux and a half-empty pile of cheese-flavoured Doritos. Your comatose date exhaling Absinthe fumes into a rogue early-afternoon chink of light streaming through a gap in the hotel room curtains. Grasping at your cellphone and finding a litany of emailed Uber receipts betraying a bent path through Berlin’s city centre. Mentally retracing steps. Something about an experiment. Something about James Bond. Something about the world’s best cocktail bar.
On the overnight flight from Johannesburg I stayed awake all night drinking gin and talking to a handsome off-duty Virgin Atlantic pilot with the sunken and forlorn eyes of a golden retriever who told me about his attempts to become a ‘Pick Up Artist’. Apparently, having long been a student of the dark arts of Pick Up Artistry, he had many a tale to tell. Clearly, he was single and lonely.
Strung out on diazepam and reeking of the lumpen-proletariat of economy class, I stumbled into a newsagent at Heathrow Terminal 5 and clocked a cheap paperback for my connecting flight to Germany. How to Make Women Beg You For It: The Golden Rules of Pick-up Artistry by someone known only as Mr Tumnus. I skim-read the whole thing en route to Berlin Tegel, some primordial chauvinistic inkling egging me on to take copious notes in my Moleskine. According to my tutor, there are 5 golden rules to effective Pick-Up Artistry:
Rule 1: Women thrive from competitive anxiety: strive to make her jealous for maximum sexual reciprocity.
Rule 2: Never let a girl know you think she’s beautiful: otherwise she will bask in your worship and begin to resent you.
Rule 3: Assume that YOU are the prize, the prince and act like it.
Rule 4: Be scarce, be mysterious. Have her wake up one morning to find you listening to chamber music and examining elaborate spreadsheets.
Rule 5: When in doubt, in any situation, ask: what would James Bond do?
There were a few barriers holding me back from launching my career as a Pick Up Artist. Firstly, it would be my first attempt at this misogynistic seduction method apparently that was, according to Mr Tumnus, much practiced and peddled by social pariahs the world over. Secondly, it was hard to act like James Bond with an injured ankle, as much as I tried to turn the limp into an affected swagger. And thirdly, my target conquest was already dating me.
I let my eye wander, as the maitre d’s shorter-than-short shorts floated past our table. “Oh my god, she’s so hot,” said my date, turning to leer at those perfect thighs, and instantly borking my Pick-Up Artist swagger.
Berlin on the eve of a World Cup victory that would bring grown men into the streets, reduce them to their knees, weeping with joy. The night was pregnant with victory. Chaperoning her into the first taxi outside the hotel. “Mitte, bitte,” I said, and winked. She looked impressed.
We gatecrashed a Thai fusion restaurant with the most beautiful Asian maitre’d this side of Pyongyang. She had a face like a samurai, a body like an amazon, and an attitude straight out of a Chow Yun Fat flick. The girl practically had a theme tune. I decided this was my chance to explore Rule 1: “build competitive anxiety”.
I let my eye wander, as the maitre d’s shorter-than-short shorts floated past our table. “Oh my god, she’s so hot,” said my date, turning to leer at those perfect thighs, and instantly borking my Pick-Up Artist swagger. “Not as hot as you, baby,” I said out of sheer reflex, automatically breaking not only Rule 1 but also Rule 2 (“never let a girl know you think she’s beautiful”).
Rule 3 (“Be scarce”) and Rule 4 (“Be mysterious”) both went to the dogs when she completely failed to notice my prolonged absence idling in the toilet; or me gazing profoundly out of the window muttering to myself about what Proust would do in this situation. So I decided to skip straight to Rule 5.
And what would James Bond do with his Moneypenny at midnight on a Berlin summer evening? Take her to an achingly hip and ruthlessly exclusive speakeasy rumoured to be the finest cocktail bar on the planet?
I hit the buzzer inscribed only with ‘Bar’, trying my utmost to hide the fear of being turned away behind a forced rictus grin of serene confidence. “Is this the right place?” asked my date, like thousands of eager customers before her. Like they wanted us to. And moments later we were in.
A scene presided over by an ostentatiously intimidating taxidermised octopus, the perfect totem of the ambidextrous appendages that were reaching and pouring and twisting and shaking as each exquisite drink was crafted, one by one, by one.
We lucked out on two prime seats in this micro-amphitheatre of a speakeasy, Drunk on bog-standard caipirinhas from lesser establishments, we were talking several decibels louder than the other guests. We had to focus.
The cocktail list was beautiful and obscure, riffing on gin and absinthe. We chose randomly, to a disapproving nod from the surly German bartisan at the centre of things: hoarding rarified ingredients in vials, hunched over elaborate grating machines. A scene presided over by an ostentatiously intimidating taxidermised octopus, the perfect totem of the ambidextrous appendages that were reaching and pouring and twisting and shaking as each exquisite drink was crafted, one by one, by one.
I’m sure at some point we may have started making out inappropriately. I’m sure we practiced our cod-German accents. I’m sure the chic trio of teutonic blondes next to us were hissing insults about the drunk fucking tourists. I’m sure I admitted that I had been attempting to practice Pick-Up Artistry on her. I’m sure she told me out of the blue how attractive I was. And I’m sure I said it was just because she was wasted.
The truth is, even when frequenting the finest cocktail bars in the world, sometimes James Bond can drink one too many Martinis, stop caring whether they are shaken or stirred, completely forget how he and Moneypenny got home, and find no physical signs the next morning of whether or not he ended up getting lucky.
She wore: black and flower-print summer dress
I wore: Nike hi-tops, ankle support and a Scotch and Soda t-shirt
We drank: French 75, and the Buck und Breck house absinthe special (which wiped all memory, journalistic standards and details of other drinks consumed)
We spent: 95 Euros