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A Drink With Tony Conigliaro

He’s one of the most internationally creative forces in the drinks world and is about to open a third bar in London. We spend an afternoon of coffee and prosecco with the famed Tony C.

Tony Conigliaro, both the man and all he embodies, means a lot to the drinks industry. He is arguably the most well known bartender to come out of London, loved for his creativity above all else. He’s the owner of two, soon to be three, London bars and he’s been a mentor to many of the younger generation, who are now branching out on their own. But for me Tony Conigliaro has always been a bit intimidating because he’s the most grown-up man in the drinks world.

If you’re thinking age is a strange accolade to give someone you’ve misunderstood for I’m not talking about how many years Tony Conigliaro has been alive. Rather it’s the calm and measured way his bars, his drinks, the people who work for him and even his publication, exist. Nothing ever seems rushed or misplaced with Tony.

Back in April this year he did a talk to the trade, as part of the London Sessions, about his life and role in the drinks industry but with such a huge breadth of work there were still many questions left unanswered. Which is when Rebekkah Dooley, founder of the London Sessions, contacted me to arrange a joint interview and eventually we were able to sit down for coffee with the man himself.

Clustered around a table in his Soho venue, Bar Termini, the interview was far from smooth flowing. You see every man and his dog wants to say hi to Tony. He may be more owner than bartender these days, but the regulars still know where to pay their dues.

“Here,” he says, gesturing around the room, “is all the things we love about Italy, personally and subtly and things people wouldn’t even know. This green here was the colour of my grandmother’s table.”

Bar Termini is Tony’s ode to Italy, where his family come from. As part of a second generation which grew up in London, this is his idealised version of home. And it’s a noisy one. Bar Termini really encapsulates that hustle of a busy station bar with the clang of the espresso machine, the steady cacophony of conversation and the fizzing froth of the milk steamer.

“Preference allows me to create a space that encapsulates something more Italian than Italian. Second generations always have an idealised version of the place your parents are from because you hear the stories. An idealised version of something that’s Italian is the reality of it all and what I want when I go to Italy. I want that one euro espresso at the bar, coffee that’s going to shoot me into tomorrow, a nip of Negroni before I get the train.”

Soho has long been Tony’s stomping ground, back to when he lived on Greek Street 15 years ago. He remembers outrageous nights in The Colony Rooms and then the slow invasion of the chain restaurants and coffee shops. “Part of us, and me, wanting to open Bar Termini was because I was bored of everyone asking where they should go to for coffee or cocktails in Soho. So it was literally - we have to do something. We had the idea ages ago, and if people keep asking, it’s a good idea to do it.”

Before he was king of thimble-sized Negronis and £1 espressos (provided you shoot it and bugger off) Tony has always been famous for his Drinks Factory where many of the ingredients and even some of the cocktails for his venues are prepared. We’re talking equipment which can achieve more than your traditional tin shaker. 

“It’s weird because everyone’s always like, ‘oh you use fancy machinery’. Everything we do with that fancy machinery you could do with cheap substitutes; they are tools for us to become more efficient, tools for us to become more accurate and tools for us to continue doing things on a level that’s consistent. All of that is irrelevant without what happens in the bars, the service and the connections.”

For Tony it has never mattered whether we all knew about the Drinks Factory or not. He believes even if we don’t know someone has spent two days making an ingredient that ends up in our glass, there is something intrinsic in sensing the details have been taken care of. It’s the simple difference of understanding what is good and what isn’t.

It’s this passion for creating and his inability to separate the drive to be better from the drive to be successful that has made Tony and his business flourish.

“It’s personal, it’s business, it’s all of the above. I think if this was purely a monetary venture, where if things got tarnished and we didn’t change anything and things stayed the same just because we were trying to squeeze every penny out of it – that’s what this place would be. But it’s not. I psychologically wouldn’t be able to do that.”

It’s those touches London is looking forward to seeing when Tony opens his third bar, Untitled on Kingsland Road in the next few weeks. It’s been inspired by Andy Warhol’s iconic Silver Factory and will showcase creativity not just through its cocktails but in food, art and design. Expect to see evolving installations and collaborations with like-minded souls as the space becomes a new creative hub, moulded and shaped by the people that frequent it, exhibit in it and work for it. This won’t be a small space like 69 Colebrooke Row or Bar Termini, instead it marks a shift in the venues this iconic bartender wants to create and seems to suggest a way to incorporate the artistic vision that has gone into Tony’s publication with his bars.

“It’s a complicated one predicting what will happen but you always get inklings of the future. The whole change in the drinks culture, I think, has happened for two reasons over the past few years, because you had the food industry become more and more elaborate and there’s more of a choice,” says Tony going on to muse on our appreciation of food and the way people would become more experimental with what they eat.

“I think you have to be curious, there is this sense of adventurism. It’s also a badge of honour, you get your little crowns whenever you write so many reviews on Yelp – the reason that happens is because it happens in real life. You take people from out of town to your joints, places you think are good so therefore you have to keep up your level of what you know, which means you have to be curious to go and try new things.”

Of course just bringing a big name to the table doesn’t guarantee success for any of Tony’s ventures. As he aptly points out, London is a big thriving city and there are a lot of choices and the more choices that have arrived the better you have to be. You have to make it work.

Luckily 69 Colebrooke Row and Bar Termini are incredible bars. Or perhaps luck isn’t the right word – Tony and his team have created some of the most incredible cocktails which sip delightfully. They may be complex behind the scene but they certainly don’t translate that way. Even the scientific feat that is the Prairie Oyster has a flavour palate that is recognisable and delicious. It’s these drinks, coupled by the great venues that have propelled Tony into an industry name. If anyone was worthy of being labelled a celebrity bartender it’s him.

“That’s not why I do it,” he immediately remarks on being told he’s famous. “I do it because I love it. I don’t do it to be recognised, I much prefer anonymity. That’s a really honest way to live.”

So what’s Tony Conigliaro’s definition of success?

“Are my customers happy? I have no delusions of grandeur; I think the simple pleasure of having customers who are happy is tantamount. It’s a nice thing to happen but do I do this for the awards? No. I can look myself in the mirror in the morning and say after seven years that 69 Colebrooke Row is growing and better than it was in the previous seven years and that’s why we’re so busy and we are busier year on year because of that. Because we put so much passion in to what we do, and even if you don’t understand the amount of passion we put in it, somehow that translates. It works.”

We end our conversation back where it started, talking about Soho’s glory days but my tape recorder is scaring away the juiciest stories and just as the prosecco arrives we decide to take it off record. I truly believe any project Tony Conigliaro turns his hand to, and patiently brings to life, will flourish. In this way, with his calm parental guidance, Untitled will be a success.