Totally retro, all-new Meo

Chinatown’s hot new bar is all about tantalizingly unexpected tastes

Inspired by vintage Taipei and historic Chinatown, Meo is tucked below (and a sibling to) Michelin-starred Kissa Tanto. Charles Nasby photo

“Is it OK if the flowers are on the edges?” a server asks as she tweezes a bloom onto the Citrus Crush cocktail and carries it to a waiting table of excited friends.

It’s 5 p.m. on a Thursday at Meo, Chinatown’s newest cocktail bar. Though the doors just opened, the place has immediately started to fill. I overhear one of the managers say there are 55 people on the books tonight and more walk-ins are expected.

It’s sunny outside, but you’d never know it in the low light of the room themed after a 1970s love-motel. Part lounge and part living room, Meo feels like an elevated version of a retro home bar. As if you stepped back in time to visit your grandparents with exquisite taste and an extensive liquor collection. The pink-hued interior and menus are influenced by Taipei and photos of Vancouver’s Chinatown from the same era.

Teapots line the top shelf awaiting the Special Punch—an ever-changing offering that celebrates fresh local ingredients—and the angled mirror above the bar offers visitors a silent education in mixology. The bartenders expertly navigate the narrow space, deftly dancing around each other to reach for a crystal highball glass, scoop crushed ice and artfully arrange garnishes atop drinks that will playfully mess with your head.

“Behind,” asserts bar manager Denis Bykov.

Bykov arrived in Vancouver via Dubai with plans to test the market when he met the team behind Bao Bei and Kissa Tanto. Bykov began working with the team to develop the cocktail menu for Meo while also bartending at Kissa Tanto, which he says gave him the opportunity to get to know the community and its palate.

At Meo, cocktails like the Golden Divine play with unexpected flavours of fruits and vegetables. Mark Yammine photo

According to Bykov, Vancouverites are very dialed into local flavours and are harder to surprise than people in Dubai, to whom everything is new and fresh. North Americans are familiar and attached to traditional cocktail flavours and ingredients, he says, so when developing the central concept of Meo’s cocktail menu he knew he had to deliver something unexpected.

“Everything needs a theme, not just a list of ingredients,” he says. Meo’s theme needed to be fun, interesting, high quality and sophisticated at the same time. Eventually, after much crowdsourcing, Meo landed on fruits and veggies. More specifically, playing with the sweet and savoury expectations of fruits versus vegetables.

The Dirty Lychee Martini, for instance, uses lacto-fermented lychee to preserve the sweet aroma of the fruit while maintaining a completely savoury flavour that messes with your head and sticks with you after your leave. “You need something to remember these days,” says Bykov, “you need more than just a good drink.”

The menu consists of eight twists on classic and eight signature cocktails. “We play by the rules of the game,” Bykov says of the twist, whereas the signatures are Meo’s own unique creations that buck convention. “We would like you to give us a chance,” Bykov asks. “Relax, don’t compare.”

In many ways, the Meo menu is on trend while eschewing expectations of those trends. It’s no secret that Martinis are having a moment, much like the Negroni last year, but Meo has leaned into the hype with three different styles. “The bar industry trends are a circle,” says Bykov, pointing out that most flavours and techniques have been invented already. Bykov believes in adapting to what people are asking for and then puts his own spin on it in the lab by playing with your expectations.

The Espresso Carrotini is like a summer cold brew and is made without any artificial sugar. The carrot juice reduction, coffee and citrus peels remove any savoury aspect of the carrot and produce a classic Espresso Martini, but with a little added complexity from the vegetable.

The Spicy Margarita is another trendy fan favourite, but Bykov uses a pre-batched clarified melon milk punch to keep the spiciness from hitting the back of the throat. The spice level can also be customized from mild to deadly so the drink is punchy yet sippable.

“If you have six to seven ingredients, you’re not going to get them all,” says Bykov, and he doesn’t want you to get them all. “It’s like a sauce. There’s this one majority flavour.”

—by Allie Turner

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