Variations on a theme

Five Vancouver bars that offer immersive fun along with your cocktail

Key Party interior
At Key Party, the 1970s are in full swing with retro-inspired cocktails like the B52 and a vegan Grasshopper. Photo courtesy of Key Party

Step into ABQ London bar and you’re no longer in the city’s Hackney district but an RV where people in goggles and yellow hazmat suits “cook” their own molecular cocktails. Taking its name from an episode of Breaking Bad, ABQ is a trip inside lead character Walter White’s mobile meth lab.

With its dry ice and gas masks, the spot is just one example of the kinds of immersive experiences that are making theme bars so popular around the globe. In Paris, for instance, there’s L’Urgence, a medical-themed bar that uses test tubes as tumblers. And New York’s Oscar Wilde pays homage to the playwright through marble statues, Victorian-era furniture and drinks that go by names like the Selfish Giant and Ugly Peacock, nods to his life and work.

In fiercely competitive markets and uncertain times, places that serve their slings and sours with a chaser of escapism have an edge, a draw that sets them apart and helps keeps them afloat.

Vancouver, too, is home to several bars that do more than pour masterfully mixed drinks by creating otherworldly settings. The Shameful Tiki Room was one of the first, its kitsch décor and Mai Tais having rekindled the city’s passion for tiki culture.

The city’s growing collection of theme bars extends far beyond Polynesian beaches, however. Here are a few to consider next time you’re looking for a delicious liquid getaway.

Hail Mary’s

670 East Broadway,

If you’re unable to confess your sins without a potent cocktail in hand, Hail Mary’s is the answer to your prayers. Catholic iconography adorns the religion-themed late-night hole in the wall, from paintings of the Last Supper in gilded frames to wall plates depicting glowing Virgin Marys. There’s even a sombrero-wearing Christ and other kitschy figurines. To sip, consider a selection from the menu’s Seven Deadly Sins section. Lust is a peachy bourbon sour, while Gluttony is appropriately indulgent, with espresso, Baileys, vodka, crème de cacao and whipped cream. Check out the heavenly Saints washroom or visit the Sinners’ stall and go straight to hell.

Make the Lust cocktail.

Dark Manor Inn (Closed)

4298 Fraser Street,

Cobwebs, gargoyles and candleholder skulls: an old haunted house is the theme behind this windowless bar created by Shameful Tiki founder Rod Moore. Inspired by a Disneyland “doom-buggy” ride called Haunted Mansion, the creepily cool bar has a fabricated backstory from 1886 about a deceased baron and his young wife. Their portraits are on the gold-damask-papered walls, along with many other haunting black-and-white photos. Playfully tasty whisky-forward cocktails include Pills, Potions and Quack Nostrum, made with whisky, cinnamon, ginger and lime. Served in a footed goblet with a glow-in-the-dark ice cube, it’s topped with a peated malt air or foam, resembling a witch’s cauldron. Arsenic and Ash, consisting of a house malt-whisky blend, red wine, Aperol, egg white and lemon ash, is garnished with long strands of lime peel and a dried rose, evoking the ground you might see surrounding a tombstone.

Key Party

2303 Main Street,

You know what to do: drop your keys into the bowl by the front door and see where the evening takes you. Developed by Rachel Zottenberg and David Duprey (Uncle Abe’s, Emerald Supper Club and others), the ’70s-inspired bar adjacent to the Rumpus Room has an accountant’s office as its speakeasy-style front. Inside, it’s dimly lit and sultry with red velvet curtains and a fantastical hand-painted mural. Retro cocktails are poured here alongside snacks like party mix and ants on a log—think Cherry Paralyzers, B52s and a vegan version of the Grasshopper.

Make the Spiced Apricot Sour. 

Storm Crow Tavern and Alehouse

1305 Commercial Drive, 1619 West Broadway,

With two locations (the Tavern and the Alehouse), this so-called “nerd bar” has every board game you can imagine: Monopoly, Apples to Apples, Catan, Trivial Pursuit, Blokus… It’s also the only place in town that offers a Dungeons & Dragons dining experience with your own personal DM, or Dungeon Master. Various games, comics, TV shows and movies inspire menu items; cocktails include Romulan Ale, a two-ounce concoction of vodka, peach schnapps, Blue Curaçao, lemon juice, soda and Star Trek dilithium crystals (a type of mint); Solar Beam is a nod to Pokémon, with white and Malibu rum, Bols Blue, pineapple juice and fresh basil. Let your geek flag fly.

The Black Lodge

317 East Broadway,

This vegetarian restaurant and bar is a re-creation of David Lynch’s surreal drama Twin Peaks. Four small log “cabins” make for cozy tables; the hallway to the washroom evokes the mind-bending Red Room; and firewood and a framed photo of the murdered Laura Palmer are among the many details that bring the warped and confounding show to life. Die-hard fans will appreciate cocktails that go by names like Fire at the Mill, with rosemary-infused gin, and the vodka-centred Audrey’s Curiosity. Of course, these should be accompanied by a slice of Damn Fine Cherry Pie.

Make The Fire at the Mill.

—by Gail Johnson

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