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By Anatol Steven. 24.01.2014
A “cocktail crawl” may not seem like a smart move, especially midweek. But our writer relished the idea.
For the purposes of RigaNOW! magazine and BestRiga.com – and for some fun – a friend and I decided to do a “cocktail crawl” through some of the best bars in the Old Town.
We won’t bore you with the slurry conversations we had with absorbing individuals we met along the way. Instead we’ll stick to the topic of describing the drinks and the bars. It was a weekday winter’s evening, so the places were not at their busiest, but all were open and welcoming.
Cuba’s a great place to end an evening, not start one, and it was deserted when we stomped the snow off our boots after stepping inside. The attraction of coming so early was “happy hour”, in effect from 5pm to 7pm, when two glasses of the same drink can be ordered for the price of one. We kicked off the evening with a Cuba libre each (€3).
Initially we asked for them with black rum, which according to the menu would have been €0.50 extra. But the waitress told us happy hour applied to all drinks except those with black rum. In any case the drink was satisfying after a hard day – genuine and generous.
Cuba is great for sinking into one of the soft sofas with your compañeros as cheap candles flicker in the dim interior. Study the graffiti-covered wall near the entrance, and ponder why it feels warming to see the anomaly of a ceiling fan and Cuban flags in such a cold climate.
Even more powerful here is the Friday zombie (€5), which blends a monstrous 73% proof rum with vodka, more rum, syrup and juice. Over a second Cuba libre each, we mulled the possibility of starting and ending our tour at the same place.
The next stop on this loosely pre-planned tour was across Dome Square, at the more upmarket B-bārs. This was the place to indulge in a professionally made Clavis (€6.20), Riga’s “official cocktail”. It’s an intriguing blend of Riga Black Balsam, rhubarb liqueur, pomegranate syrup, chocolate syrup and apple juice, served in a cocktail glass. Definitely an original, each ingredient is clearly discernable, and it’s not as sickly sweet as you’d imagine with much of the sourness coming from the balzams. It was still before the end of happy hour (4pm to 7pm weekdays), so we had two each.
The B in B-bārs stands for balzams, and many of the cocktails feature the oily drink. A popular shooter here is called Zigmunds (€3.80), with Riga Black Balsam, triple sec and a slice of orange. Even the bar’s classy interior is in dark browns, flecked with gently alternating color lighting.
The smart waiter, fluent in English, brought a tiny peachy complimentary dessert to our relaxed seating towards the back of the bar. Despite its humble façade, B-bārs is highly rated by expats and moneyed locals, and it’s a restaurant too, serving fine pasta dishes, juicy steaks and mascarpone cheesecake. We, however, wanted to leave room for our next cocktail.
The Clavis drinks and B-bārs’ rather stereotypical cocktail-bar blandness had brought back an edge of sobriety. That changed at our next stop.
The chummy, buff, bearded waiter at Garaža serves one of the finest Long Island iced teas (€7.10) in the city. You can sense he’s been making them all his life – not with the doggy tricks of a performing bartender but with simple, solid dependability. The drink was packed with citrus fruits and was easy on the ice and coke.
With its seating ripped out of automobiles, pictures of junkyards and rally races, and number-plates nailed above the brickwork bar, garage-themed Garaža meant a welcome step back to less pretentious imbibing. There’s no discernable happy hour here, but frankly we were glad of that.
The gentle Moby-esque chillout sounds, subdued amber lighting, slow spin of the mirrorball and abstract tabletop designs complimented the warm fuzz in our stomachs. By the end of our brief visit we agreed that the evening’s cocktails were catching up on us.
If you’re feeling rich, try the “royal” iced tea (€50), with branded ingredients like Beluga vodka, Corralejo Anejo tequila, Bombay Sapphire gin, Havana Club Barrel Proof rum, Cointreau and Moët & Chandon champagne. We weren’t, so we considered our next step.
There are several other possible cocktail venues hereabouts, including the amiable Bar I Love You opposite Garaža. On the other side of the stately 300-year-old Swedish Gate lie B-bārs’ less frequented subterranean sister Balzambārs as well as Shot Bar, which is a bit more nonchalant and less predictable.
But we trudged through the icy streets to Bar.Ber Room, a unique and minuscule spot that combines daytime hairdresser with nighttime bar specializing in strong drinks. By this time the tiny space was starting to buzz.
Bar.Ber excels with its cocktails. Mostly they’re the classics, thrown and shaken by an experienced bartender, but a post-soviet twist means you can also get 2500ml gasoline containers (eight good portions) of potent Long Island iced tea or sangria. We considered this carefully before asking the bartender for advice, maybe for something new. He suggested “sun leaf”: rum, buckthorn, orange “and a few little secrets”. Such was his subtle persuasion, we couldn’t refuse. We cannot now recall how much it was.
A little further on, beneath the blurry city lights of bustling Kaļķu Street, lies Magic Bar, a mysterious venue whose dark reputation rests on revealing the alchemic secrets of Riga Black Balsam to unwitting groups of prepaying tourists. It’s a bit like a live local version of the London Dungeon, with the addition of alcoholic drinks, or so we’ve been told.
Precisely what we did there is a little hazy, but we do remember a grinning medieval-garbed waitress providing us with two big 100-gram shots of the black oily stuff and a plate of round truffles and fancy cakes.
The last place on the tour, we think, was Kiwi Bar. Staggering into it seemed like coming home after a long journey in foreign lands. Here, in the most cosmopolitan bar in Riga, beneath screens showing a routine football match, we soothed our minds and our stomachs with a simple gin and tonic. Kiwi is as international as the display of banknotes nailed behind the bar, its bargirls as sympathetic and accustomed to intoxicated attempts to communicate as any in Latvia. After a while they probably called us a cab.
Cuba – Jauniela 15, Tel. 66722 4362
B-bārs – Doma laukums 2, 6722 8842
Garaža – Aldaru 10, Tel. 6722 4696
Bar.Ber Room – Mazā Smilšu 13, Tel. 2200 2808
Magic Bar – Kaļķu 10, Tel. 6722 2877
Kiwi Bar – Skārņu 7, Tel. 6721 1917
[photo courtesy Bar.Ber Room]
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