The Upper Crust
- Written by Nick Ross
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With a name out of a John Grisham novel, The Society has created something yet to be seen in Vietnam. Words by Nick Ross. Photos by Kyle Phanroy
In early 2010, the Park Hyatt opened the Martini Bar. So different was the atmosphere, layout and décor, that despite the top-end prices it was an immediate hit. So when Chill Skybar and Blanchy’s Tash came on the scene not long after, the competition target was Martini. Everyone wanted Martini clientele and Martini style. Now a considerable number of establishments aim at the same market.
What happened with Martini Bar is typical of Saigon: someone does something new, is successful, then everyone tries to do something similar.
From a number of visits, we believe that the recently opened restobar, The Society, could well be the start of a similar craze. So what makes it worthy of such attention?
For Those in the Know
Located in one of the new malls springing up on Nguyen Hue, walk in between Starbucks and Coffee Bean out front, and the path opens out onto a small alleyway lit up by fairy lights. It’s here that you find The Society. With a bar facing out onto the lane, outdoor alleyway seating and two separate indoor, air-con buildings, this is a watering hole and restaurant that is as welcoming inside as it is out. Taking advantage of the open-air setting, ithas the feel of a quan nhau, a Vietnamese beer-drinking haunt, but about 10 levels up. Gone are the plastic chairs and stools, the plates of peanuts and the bottles of Saigon Beer. This place is upmarket. It’s a quan nhau for the financially well disposed.
Yet the society is more than a top-end bar. This is a place that takes its food seriously.
“My first inspiration was a steakhouse,” says CEO and co-founder, Hana Dang. “But all the steakhouses here follow a rustic, old-style design. They are also very male. I did some research, and women don’t like eating steak so much. I wanted to create something a bit more unisex.”
Her solution? A steakhouse and grill, a place that serves up seafood as well as steak, and a range of meat dishes that are not just focused on that red meat of local choice, beef.
With a kitchen set up by a multi-award-winning chef, Hana is really pushing for an enticing, top-end food menu. We’ve tried the oysters, steak and dishes like blackened cod. They’re representative of the mix she’s trying to inspire.
Yet being a restaurant was not enough for Hana, and together with one of the partners, Olaf Mueller, a fine-art photographer who spent many years living in Hong Kong, they liked the idea of creating a laneway bar, the type of joint prevalent in Hong Kong, parts of London, the CBD area of Melbourne and New York.
“Everyone in Saigon wants to have the best location,” explains Hana. “But we wanted something that was tucked away, a separate society, a little bit hidden. That’s why we called it The Society.”
Set in a new food mall designed to resemble 1950s Saigon with its Asian yet French-influenced architecture, inside they went for “European but with a modern twist”. The regal, velvet-upholstered chairs, the mosaic white, cream and blue floor tiling, and stucco plaster that could be from Paris, Budapest or Vienna; the chandeliers with their subtle lighting and the marble table tops — this is a meshing of all things European. There’s also an obsession with the colour blue — making the place both corporate and yet surprisingly relaxed.
Seven Deadly Sins
Naturally it’s not just the décor and setting that make one dining option stand out from the next, it’s the product, too. Here, while nuts still need to be tightened and bolts wait to be adjusted, what The Society has created is already drawing in the crowds. One standout is the drinks list.
Put together by Adelaide native Jay Moir, to add spice he’s created a separate cocktail menu to complement the 160 drinks already on offer — the Seven Deadly Sins. The presentation is as unusual as the drinks themselves. Check out the Smoking Sinatra. It genuinely smokes.
“For me, that’s what cocktails are about,” he says. “They’re fun, good to drink and enjoyable. We’re inviting you to come to our house, so we want to entertain you. It’s that simple.”
That is where The Society is making the right moves. They want to entertain their guests, provide them with something different, and to do it well. Inevitably, though, it will be judged by the same metric as any other potential trendsetter in this ultra-competitive city — can it continue to draw in the crowds?
The Society is at Saigon Garden, 99 Nguyen Hue, Q1, HCMC