New Zealand’s most internationally successful bar is coming in for a final landing, four years after opening its doors on Ponsonby Road, Auckland. A brief but sparkling jewel in the crown of Auckland hospitality – loved by its regulars, 22 of them at a time and unknown by far too many New Zealanders who will never know what they missed.
For owners Barney Toy, Darren Mynes, Jacob Briars, James Millar and Bill Scott – it’s been a long-haul flight that’s been wildly successful on paper, mostly successful in person and is coming in for a perfect landing with a sale, a final pop-up and the chance to disembark right on time. And there’s a phrase that keeps rolling over the tongue – first uttered by an international guest and now seemingly true. Right bar, wrong city.
Here’s the flight data:
First guests aboard: 8 July, 2019
Christmas pop-ups: 4
International and local guest shifts welcomed: 8
Total seats: 22
Total crew: 12
Total vermouth count: 9
International layovers in MEA, SEA, UK, US, AUS: 12
In-flight service awards:
2019 TOTC Best Bar Team Asia Pacific
2020 TOTC Best New Bar Asia Pacific
2020 500 Best Bars List
2020 Top50 Discovery List
2022 TOTC Best International Cocktail Bar Asia Pacific
2022 500 Best Bars List
Final crew disembark: 29 September, 2023
So a few essentials to cover off first: this is no crash landing but an well-executed and comfortable exit. They’re selling for an undisclosed sum to undisclosed buyers (stay tuned for updates here). Clipper as you know it, will close on the 29th of September with last drinks. A Hendricks pop-up will then take its place until the new owners open the new concept towards the end of the year. Barney and Darren are staying on during the pop-up and transition, carefully handing over 3/175 Ponsonby Rd to its new owners.
A Perfect Landing
There’s an art to the exit, which Toy and Mynes are making with the usual amount of honesty and banter, between a pair who have been fixtures on and off in New Zealand hospitality for nearly 15 years. For the last six months, they’ve largely been back behind the stick of the bar, providing fast dispense and table service in a bar that set out to be different to everything else Auckland had on offer.
It should come as no surprise that in this final Captain’s Log – Toy and Mynes are happy to do most of the talking as they reflect on a seemingly perfect flight to the wrong destination. They’ve never been shy of an opinion but as the years have gone on, they’ve earned the right to it in ways many others either dream of or scoff at. Both international competition bartenders, they were part of Auckland’s hospitality glory days and have an often brutalistic attitude to ‘being better’. Better than the rest, sure – but most often, better than themselves. That’s never won a popularity contest, especially in a land where everyone being equal usually means the bold, ambitious and loud can ruffle a few feathers.
“When we opened, the ambition was to open a bar that New Zealand’s never had, a table service only cocktail bar. Where everything was about the hospitality experience from when you walked into the door and delivering delicious drinks. We were looking at bars like Dante’s in New York, Three Sheets, Bulletin Place. World-renowned bars that are nothing about the nonsense of gimmicky garnishes. You know you can hide a shit drink behind lots of flair. We didn’t want to do that at all. So tiki-inspired flavours, super tropical but super clean, tight presentation – which then led into developing the long-haul and short-haul menus, the low abv options and the vermouth offerings, just things that I was really into.” – Barney.
It’s true – Clipper was the first bar in New Zealand to split their passport menu into drinking styles determined by abv or standard units. The menu included the precise calculations of standard drinks per order. The aperitivo hour menu gave regulars and guests the chance to explore vermouth as the star of the moment, the weekly bangers board drew the attention of first-timers with banana old-fashioneds, rhubarb negronis and other weird and wonderful concoctions.
“We were like, put loads of delicious things in the glass, but make sure that it looks beautiful, you know, as clean as it possibly can. For me coming back to New Zealand*, this was the only place I really wanted to work. And also, it was great to be able to come in and support Barney at a time when there weren’t very many people coming into New Zealand, especially who could help deliver it to the standard that he wanted to deliver?” – Darren
*Darren returned to New Zealand from Ireland during Covid lockdowns, doing two weeks in isolation before walking into Clipper on a quiet afternoon, completely unexpected. I was there at the time and I’ve never seen Barney so vulnerable with joy at the surprise reunification with a best mate and colleague. Their bond is both admirable and mysterious for two people who push each other so hard. It’s the epitome of friendship. – TM
The original starting consortium of five has bought and sold shareholdings privately over the last four years, with Mynes taking a slice in the last 12 months. So why sell up now, so early in the piece?
Both Toy and Mynes shrug and explain that the opportunity came up and it seemed right. For Toy, it’s a little more personal. He’s been largely at the helm consistently for four years through Covid and this year, where Auckland hospitality has experienced fits and starts. He’s tired and while proud of everything they’ve achieved as a team from beginning to end, he’s also pragmatic. They set out to open a bar that felt and expressed itself on an international level and New Zealand’s geographical distance from other parts of the world has always made the migration of inspiration, ideas and innovation slightly slower. Add the closed borders and the jet-lag is even longer. And it turns out – the New Zealand domestic crowd weren’t really ready for this kind of bar according to Toy and Mynes.
“Sometimes I think Kiwis think that a bar should serve Steinlager and sauvignon blanc and that’s it. But that’s a pub, where cocktails are the thing on the back of the menu, or the back of a wine list. Whereas, I think, every bit of feedback we’ve had, we’ve had people that live in like New York, lived in Manhattan and said that this was one of the best bars they’ve ever sat in. So we did it – we made an international bar in Auckland! And the Kiwis that kind of the locals that get what we’re doing, are very well travelled. They understand and they get it. When we opened, telling people to ‘grab a seat, we’ll be right there’ would freak people out. Consistently we’ve still had guests who just want to stand and look at the backbar rather than let us serve them. So it’s definitely been trying to re-educate a market.” – Darren
Toy and Mynes compare it to the difference between knowing what’s expected in a restaurant setting – would you like a wine list? Still or sparkling? There’s an order to it that makes sense. But a small 22-bar sans DJ and bustling beer and wine list is still a concept hard to introduce to a New Zealand market trying to find its feet after three combustible years of lockdowns and economic pressure.
Clipper rolled with the punches, serving up takeaway cocktails and a bustling menu consultation hustle out of the back kitchen including the minibar fridge to cocktails to go. Some of those elements have remained an important mark of a period of time Toy might prefer to forget. There were long nights trying to maintain the business, the needs of the other owners and customers while one of the owners (Briars, Global Advocacy Director for Bacardi) was still stuck overseas. Late night and early morning calls trying to pivot and optimise the business were plat du jour.
There’s no denying Clipper leaves an indelible mark with its devoted regulars – familiar faces who preferred a seat at the bar for trademark banter or had a regular appointment with menu favourites. The bright, breezy and tropical hideaway on Auckland’s Ponsonby Rd played host to international guest shifts from other Top 50 and awards lists – the theatre of Maybe Sammy, the style of OK Cantina and others have left a litany of highlights that the team remain proud of.
For Mynes, a particular highlight was being able to support Ian Tanaka back into the country. This is the long-standing hospitality culture we long to hold on to – the phonecall that connects you to your next job, your welcoming community and for Tanaka, a stint behind the stick at Clipper got him back to New Zealand.
Even as they begin the final checks and descent, Toy and Mynes are still agitating, bouncing in their seats. Their infectious energy is competitive and we ought to be hungry for it. They talk about the need for more collegiality and more education in the hospitality community – but when they talk about who needs to lead the charge, they champion people like Mikey Ball and Phil Spector acknowledging that because they’re more neutral in industry, they’ll get further.
There’s a fire and passion in the voice of both. A desire to be better and for hospitality to be better. Toy knows he’s not always been the popular character in New Zealand hospitality – honest to the point of being blunt, which some would consider rude. One could argue, he’s simply the Sheffield-opposite of New Zealand’s customary passive-aggression. He’s blunt but only because he wants to be better and mostly, he’s in competition with himself first and foremost.
They know what we lost as international compeitions moved out of the scene. They know how important it is to build networks and leverage opportunities for growth and development. That’s not selling out, it’s growing up. It’s walking with your ego into opportunity and then knowing how to put it quickly in your back pocket. That’s why they know they’re selling at the perfect time with ample success – but Barney is still looking for chances to beat himself up on what he could have done better.
“When I look back – I would have chosen a different site. I would have turned something into a bar, not convert a venue from one bar into another,” – Barney
Clipper opened and closes on a historic hospitality site, former home to Surrender Dorothy and Mea Culpa. The future awaits the next iteration.
Clipper took off and flew into international competition, a bar that had it opened in Melbourne, Abu Dhabi, New York, Atlanta, Nashville or Barcelona would have had solid bookings every night of the week. Instead, too many people never really understood exactly the wonder of what Clipper was all about.
It was a place that understood and delivered exceptional hospitality from the welcome drink to the harmonious balance of light, sound and mood and the payment station at the exit, so every guests get farewelled the same way they were welcomed.
For me, Clipper was the right bar in exactly the right city. It was a welcome refuge for an international traveller locked behind the border. We need the voices, the vision and the ambition of people like Barney Toy and the calming, mad banter of Mynes if we’re to grow through our awkward adolescence. We need something to rattle our cages and push hospitality forward – in drinks, in service but also in humanity. In learning that we need people to challenge us. So when Clipper pulls into the gate for the last time, I’m glad for the flight and just like the Concorde – a little bit sad for everyone who never got to fly or understand the wonder that it was.
I remain ever respectful of anyone who dares to take to the skies and try to break the sound barrier. You have to admire bravery and ambition, the courage to wear your ideas and your reputation on your sleeve.
Thanks for the flight, lads. It wasn’t all smooth, but it was a bloody good time.