There are bars, and then there are spots that fall more under the umbrella of immersive experiences. The team behind Bagheera made it crystal clear which side it's obsessed with when it opened Laowai back in 2021. Located on East Georgia, Laowai throws back to the speakeasies of the 1930s—before you get a table you have to give the secret password to the folks manning the Blnd Tger dumpling shop, which looks like it was designed by the team behind the first two Indiana Jones movies.
Like Laowai, there's something beautifully cinematic about Bagheera on Main Street. The journey starts when you walk off the street into the Happy Valley Turf Club betting shop, the smart money placed on King Louie. From there, you enter a world that brings to mind, in no particular order, Murder on the Orient Express, A Passage to India, Bhowani Junction, Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, and last year's mindblowingly essential RRR. How did we get from conception to (altered) reality? Well, the story goes something like this.....
"I’m Lewis Hart, owner of Bagheera, the latest addition to Chinatown’s nightlife and resurgence of hidden bars that have been found (or not) since the early 1900s. Bagheera comes on the heels of the success of our first bar, Laowai, which made us realize there was clearly a demand for this concept. And, because it was our second project, we personally wanted to push our boundaries as far as we could to explore what kind of experience we could create.
"Both cocktail director Alex Black and I started in the industry as teenagers on either side of the wood (Alex as a bartender and I was a bouncer) so, as a team, we approached both Laowai and Bagheera with an overall concept of “What are the guests looking for in an experience?” as much as “What are they looking to eat and drink during this experience?”. Bagheera was developed with the notion of escapism and a sense of unencumbered travel during a time when travel was still quite difficult—whether it be due to costs or geographical restrictions."
"The idea wasn’t a napkin-in-a-bar scenario, by any means. During my long career in hospitality, ideas had come and gone as I developed and moved into more senior roles. At one point, a British pub looked good, but I got bored of the theme. A beach bar also seemed like fun, but then, business-wise, overheads don’t disappear in the winter.
"My passion for the industry kept that creative spark alive long enough to find and stick with a concept that I truly loved. Coming from England and working/travelling in Asia, I was always finding that in major cities, hidden concepts (or speakeasies) were busy every night of the week with locals, whereas the street-front stores were marketed to tourists. In my experience, those speakeasies had more engaged staff, more creative ideas and the clientele was always respectful and fun.
"All my conversations with the owners of these bar owners and managers led to the same outlook, which was some version of: “It’s because no one can afford a house. You don’t feel like you truly belong if the most you can do is paint someone else’s walls.” The realization that hidden bars became an extension of someone’s living space and the passwords were a membership for like-minded people led me to wanting a concept that focused less on who had the most disposable income, but on providing a truly unique experience for people to join."
"We wanted Bagheera to provide an experience of a time when travel wasn’t accessible like it is now (except when a pandemic hits and it’s not again). The room is shaped like a train’s saloon car with a 45-foot custom mural of an Indian jungle scene on one side and 1,000 pieces of Indian jewelry on the other. Every detail of the concept aims to provide this sense of wanderlust. Our business partners are Indian, and my extended family grew up in India, so we wanted a concept to bridge that Anglo-Indian influence we all shared.
"That’s why we used Rudyard Kipling, the author of The Jungle Book, as a key conceptual pillar. Bagheera is the regal black panther in that story, and the winning horse password of “King Louie” in our false front betting shop is another character (Disney added to that story). Even the menus are modelled on 19th century newspapers, a tip of the hat to Kipling’s time as a journalist in India."
"The company itself started when my wife and I had a child on the way. We decided that it made more sense for me to open a business and keep my day job, than one of us lose half our income to daycare. The decision to open Bagheera was simpler to make because Laowai had become a beast of its own successes. The wait lists on the weekends had become more than three hours (we operate on a first come, first served basis) and with no-Covid inspired 'two-hour time limit'. Everyone who made it inside was having a great time but waking up to one-star reviews from people angry that they couldn’t make it in was a sign (not a welcome sign, but a sign nonetheless) that the demand was there.
"Having such strong support from Chinatown’s community leaders and associations to keep adding to the neighbourhood’s nightlife was also a big reason we decided to take the plunge."
"Our hurdles and struggles follow the storyline that we hear almost weekly from multiple industries. Unfortunately, the City of Vancouver, especially the licensing and development boards, are controlled by over-empowered bureaucrats who make opening any sort of business in Vancouver exponentially harder than it should be. City clerks with no practical experience argue the merits of design with actual architects. Decision makers add subjective and inconsistent requirements with zero compromise. In Bagheera’s case, the plan checker questioned the decorative ceiling curvature, despite clearly labelled drawings. Bagheera and Laowai both faced over $100,000 in inefficiencies. The delays and red tape are such that, even though I don’t really want to, I’m beginning to look outside Vancouver for some of our more far-off future projects.
"Aside from that, Chinatown has more Michelin star recommendations per square kilometer than any other North American neighbourhood and three of Canada’s best bars, yet the media is disproportionately aimed at the safety elements spilling over from the DTES. People who visit Chinatown on a night out are just as safe as anywhere else, but the amplified rhetoric surrounding safety certainly isn’t helping to drive tourism."
On the stereo
It’s 1960s-1970s rock and Brit mod that takes centre stage. Bands like the Who and the Rolling Stones used a tonne of sitar sounds with their biggest hits during the swinging ’60s and into the ’70s—there was so much Indian inspiration in everything from entertainment to general outlooks of life.
Open for business
"Opening Bagheera was just as fun as opening Laowai before it. Sending everyone on a wild goose chase to find us definitely added to the excitement, and we have built a great regular base of locals and regulars.
"Chinatown historically slows down at the beginning of summer while everyone heads to the beach, which gives us a chance to re-group and plan our next steps. We have some great events in the next couple of months planned in collaboration with some of the best bars in the world, and new cocktails in development. With the addition of two new concepts to the neighbourhood by September, Chinatown will hopefully continue being recognized for its nightlife."
Where: 518 Main Street
Hours: 5pm to late Tuesday to Sunday