Few people have spent as much time on either side of a bar as Bobbi Kay, the Canadian bar manager at Pauly Saal, one of Berlin’s mot outstanding cocktail bars. Kay, 30, began as a waitress and then trained at London’s legendary Match Bar, where she cut her teeth learning the trade that would later take her around the world. It was while working at the luxurious North Island resort in Seychelles that she came to the attention of a well-connected German couple, who, on hearing that the owners of Berlin’s legendary Grill Royal restaurant were starting a new venture that they intended to front with a classic cocktail bar, put her name forward for the job.
“Throughout my life I’ve had the fortune of serendipity. I didn’t really know much about Berlin, but I had heard it was the party capital of the world, and I’ve always hated last call,” says Kay as she effortlessly completes another complicated drinks order on the long oak bar behind which she now spends much of her time.
And Kay seems to have done a fantastic job since Pauly Saal opened in 2012. Housed in a sensitively converted former Jewish Girls School in the heart of Mitte, Pauly Saal is a low-lit oasis of stylish drinking where art world types rub shoulders with a new media crowd, a dash of old money and a fair number of well-heeled travellers, who, unlike most Berliners, don’t balk at the higher-than-average drink prices here. The Pauly Saal restaurant, housed in an adjacent room with a soaring ceiling, huge Murano glass chandeliers and an ornamental missile (actually an artwork by Cosima von Bonin), won its first Michelin star in 2013, and so the buzz around the entire place is now palpable.
Kay runs the bar idiosyncratically, and, unusually for Berlin, entirely in English, with her international staff hired as much for their personality as their cocktail making prowess.
“There are of course exceptions, but German bartenders don’t tend to play the archetypal bartender role,” she laughs, “but that’s not a problem here… Pauly is a bar that has a soul. Creating a personality for the room was very important to me, I wanted an environment that is inviting and classic. The combination of our staff, our cocktails and the bands I book fill the room with jazz, blues and warm vibes.”
So what is the classic Pauly Saal cocktail?
“I prefer to personalize each drink to match the tastes of my guests. However the one cocktail that has been with Pauly from the beginning is the Audrey, a simple twist on a White Lady with a refreshing splash of cucumber juice and orange flower water. In terms of what’s most popular, I’ve noticed that Germans love cucumbers and basil. A Moscow Mule is the most popular drink, followed by a Gin Basil Smash and Aperol Spritz.”
And where does the doyenne of a Mitte cocktail lounge hang out herself when she’s not making the drinks?
“I love the vibe of Tier Bar in Neukölln, contemporary cocktails and an unpretentious attitude, and when I’m done sipping dainty drinks I make my way over to Roses in Kreuzberg for plush pink walls, cheesy 90’s music and cheap shots.”
Asked about other serious cocktails bars in the city, Kay comes straight back with several suggestions, clearly unafraid of the healthy competition now to be found in Berlin: “Schwarze Traube in Kreuzberg is a small, dimly-lit room with an unbeatable ambiance. The bartenders don’t work with a list, instead they choose freshest ingredients available and create their menu each day based on that.”
“Buck and Breck in Mitte is perhaps the most serious Berlin cocktail bar: a complete ‘show’ occurs when you sit at their narrow bar, minus the flair. This is where you get classic cocktails still made how they were by their inventors.”
“Finally, Lebenstern in Schöneberg has the most exceptional assortment of alcohol in Berlin. I think a bartender there once told me that if you were to have a different shot of rum every day, it would take two and a half years to get through their rum cabinet… incredible!”
I can personally vouch for the qualities of Kay’s cocktail-making skills, and found myself leaving Pauly Saal in the early hours of the morning after coming to interview her at 8pm. Swing by yourself when you’re in Berlin, and see what Bobbi will concoct for you.