Name: Dark Manor Inn
Location: 4298 Fraser St., Vancouver
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org (no phone)
Cuisine: Haunted-house theme bar; 19th-century-inspired pub grub
Prices: Appetizers, $6 to $12; mains, $12 to $16; cocktails, $11 to $14; punch bowls $45 and $65.
Additional Info: Open daily, 5 p.m. to midnight; online reservations necessary, two-hour seating limit.
Rating System: Casual Dining
In what looks like a Victorian-era parlour room, recreated with over-the-top spookiness behind the blacked-out windows of an East Vancouver storefront, Monster Mash screeches to a halt and the lights go off momentarily. Someone at the Dark Manor Inn has ordered a punch bowl. Smoke billows through the air and candelabras flicker as a flaming skull filled with blended whiskies, spiced fruit syrups, house-made bitters and glowing ice is presented to a table of giggling guests with a ghoulish cackle and a wink.
While not everyone wants to imbibe as if every day were Halloween, the escapist theme bar is carving a larger niche in modern drink culture. Perhaps it is because, as some historians have suggested, the craft cocktail revolution has moved from the underground to the mainstream. The double-breasted, trendy-mustachioed renaissance, which unearthed forgotten traditions, improved the quality of ingredients and raised the standards of exacting techniques, has segued into an eccentric baroque period with the bar industry and patrons alike searching for the next best thing.
Or maybe it’s because, for the same reasons Disneyland never goes out of style, an Old Fashioned served with a side of freakiness is just plain fun.
Whatever the reasons, there is a growing number of novelty bars and pop-ups around the world where you can indulge your inner vampire, pirate, mermaid or James Bond, seek asylum in a zombie safe house, slither inside the skeletal belly of an Aliens-inspired beast or sidle up next to Santa at a tinsel-strewn roadhouse where Christmas never ends.
In Vancouver, we have a few concept bars, some more escapist than others (and not to be confused with the also increasingly popular game-style escape rooms). There is a Ping-Pong bar (Back and Forth), the well-established nerd dens (Storm Crow Tavern and Storm Crow Alehouse) and a new religious-themed watering hole, Hail Mary’s, where the drink menu is filled with “heavenly spirits.”
But the most fully immersive and atmospheric is the world-renowned Shameful Tiki Room, a bamboo-thatched, mist-engulfed Polynesian paradise on Main Street, which was opened six years ago by Tiki collector Rod Moore, who also owns the Modern Bartender supply store, a second Shameful Tiki in Toronto – and now, Dark Manor Inn.
Although the new bar is located only a 10-minute walk from the Shameful Tiki Room, this slowly gentrifying, but still-sleepy neck of Fraser Street is worlds apart. Dark Manor Inn also lacks the history and well-established traditions of Tiki cocktail culture. For this project, Mr. Moore had to get more creative.
The haunted manor comes with a backstory about the late, whisky-guzzling Sir Baron Rodney Seagrave, who gambled away his family fortune and his young bride, the disenchanted Constance-Dee, who was suspected of poisoning him but disappeared after his body was discovered. The mystery still lurks within these floral-papered walls.
The small room is marvellously festooned in every nook and cranny with old framed portraits (some that transform as you pass), stone gargoyles, creeping vines, red-velour banquettes, a large coffin-shaped table and a throne-esque armchair from the set of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.
Themed cocktails bubble, smoke and glow, but they also – very importantly – taste great and are moderately priced, even the elaborate punch bowls, which can be ordered in smaller sizes for two people.
Most are whisky-based, including the signature Baron’s End, which comes with a vial of “poison” on the side, and the delightfully dry white-rye and tequila martini, Danse Macabre, which gets a final drop of viscous “blood” syrup added by tincture at the table.
For something a little less booze-forward, there is an exceptionally creamy fizz, Visions of Apparitions, with house-made cola. Or the granny-bath-salt evoking Arsenic & Ash, a red-wine sour, artfully garnished with burnt lemon dust and dried rose petals.
The food, on the other hand, is mostly – unintentionally – dreadful. I guess these are the kind of home-style dishes that might have been served in a late-19th-century guesthouse. But that’s not saying much. The creamy smoked-salmon dip with warm buns or the fried perogies with sharp horseradish cream make adequate sponges for all the alcohol. Still, dry pork medallions and mushroom pies served with nearly raw “roasted” carrots drowned in sickly sweet marmalade could be better. A new menu is coming soon.
The two-hour seating limit is perfectly timed. At about 90 minutes, you might start sneezing and blinking from the incessant smoke machines, which are fun, in the beginning. (I don’t know how the very hospitable servers manage a full shift.) And then the spooky music starts to get a little repetitive. Mr. Moore plans to introduce entertainment (periodic séances, shrouded singers), which will make it more of a thrill-ride experience.
While definitely not for everyone, the Dark Manor Inn will likely rank high on lists of weird bars of the world and might even become legendary among enthusiasts. It’s not the Shameful Tiki Room, but it’s good fun.