When Barlounge opened in 2000 it brought a style and service to Chester more commonly associated with London’s cooler venues.
Founder Neil McDonnell transformed a mediocre theme pub into a phenomenon that was not only the talk of the town but one that quite literally raised the bar for other bars to follow... and they did.
Watergate Street became and remains THE place to hang out.
Sister ventures followed such as Upstairs at the Grill opposite Barlounge with its fine dining experience and Hickory’s Smokehouse which has developed into a five-strong group with the original venue down by The Groves .
But Barlounge is and will always be the first born.
The venue has been extended and tweaked in the past but has never before had a head-to-toe refurbishment like the one currently under way, with the new-look venue being unveiled to the public this Friday (January 20).
The secret for the owners will be to create a fresh feel while maintaining the magic that turned Barlounge into a success story in the first place.
Director Jason Bligh, who has been with the company from the start, stresses: “It’s a very important message that it will still be Barlounge – I’ve said that to everybody who asks us because naturally some people don’t like change. People have enjoyed Barlounge over the last 17 years and we don’t want to suddenly change our concept.
“We will be Barlounge but we will look slightly different.”
Jason is adamant the venue will be ready for the relaunch this Friday even though a whistle-stop tour on Sunday revealed there is more decoration required than from the finalists in all seven series of The Great British Bake-Off.
Asked about the key to Barlounge’s continued popularity, Jason explains: “It’s about making people feel special. There are no two ways about it and it’s about exceeding expectations.”
Among the changes customers will notice is an improved dining experience, especially at lunchtime, with a range of nibbles and light brunch items on the menu.
In terms of the physical layout, there will be an extended bar incorporating a new dispense bar.
“The main reason as always is to improve service,” said Jason, who grew up in Ibiza and is fluent in English and Spanish. “It’s so the drinks arrive much quicker. It means the rest of the bar tenders can purely focus on the guests.”
At the opposite end of the bar will be a cocktail lounge inspired by research conducted in the fashionable venues of Shoreditch, London. There will be a small partition to let in the atmosphere of the main bar while allowing guests to ‘chill’ in a distinct area as they sip cocktails and enjoy nibbles.
Customers will also notice booths throughout the venue – both indoors and out – because people love them. The idea is to provide comfortable seating in an intimate environment for couples and groups of friends. Booths will also feature in the extended dining area where the intention is to break down the traditional divide between dining and just drinking.
Barlounge is above all famed for its outdoor area and the evening buzz. Back in the day, the venue was ahead of its time in seeing the potential for offering a continental al fresco experience with compensation for the inclement British weather in the form of those toasty outdoor heaters.
The exterior will remain a vital ingredient in the Barlounge offer.
Fans of the trees on the terrace will be glad to hear the large one is staying. Unfortunately, the smaller tree died and had to be removed for health and safety reasons. On the plus side, this frees up space for a retractable awning to be installed.
Jason explained: “It’s an exciting project where we are looking to be able to use the terrace 365 days a year. On a summer’s day we will pull the awning right the way in so people can enjoy the nice weather and on a day such as today – when it’s raining and cold – we can have the awning all the way out and the terrace will be fully covered and heated.”
Oh, and don’t forget the loos. Women especially will appreciate the ‘touch of glamour’ and humour within their revamped rest room where individual cubicles have been named after cocktails such as the Daiquiri Suite. Bottoms up!