In just a few short years, New York City’s Double Chicken Please has gone from total obscurity to one of the most celebrated bars in the world. Recently crowned the No. 2 spot on The World’s 50 Best Bars 2023, it is hard to imagine that the bar had sat empty for six months after opening in November 2020.
Today, lauded by the global cocktail community, Double Chicken Please is beloved for its culinary-inflected cocktails and off-beat performance-led events. Yet surprisingly, co-founder GN Chan, 35, winner of this year’s Altos Bartenders’ Bartender Award, did not plan to step into the mixology world.
“The bar is my stage”
Realising bartending fulfilled his passions for design and performance, Chan bought a one-way ticket to New York in 2011, intent on bettering his skills. “Making a drink is just like performing and designing. The glassware, the concept behind the drink, the garnish — it is a drinkable design. And the bar is my stage.” Despite the challenges he faced — “I was just a kid looking for work and didn’t speak much English” — he was determined to push on. When emails to bartenders for guidance largely went unanswered, Chan knew he had to figure it out on his own.
View this post on Instagram
Eventually, almost out of money and on the verge of returning home to Taiwan, Chan decided he could not leave New York without learning something. So, he enrolled in a bartender’s course he had found at a theatre bar. Although the language barrier meant he didn’t actually learn much about bartending, he ended up being employed there as a busboy.
While bussing tables, the bartender-in-training soon noticed that business was flagging. He eagerly presented the owner with a 20-slide PowerPoint presentation filled with ideas and a self-designed logo to rescue the flailing establishment. However, nothing came and the bar soon went out of business. Still, Chan must have made an impression; he received an invitation from his erstwhile employer. “He took me into a fine-dining restaurant and introduced me to the sommelier. ‘You guys are looking for people, right? This kid’s good. Take him.’ And I got the job.”
Soon, he was working three jobs a day, six days a week, until he heard about Angel’s Share, led by Japanese bar legend Shingo Gokan. “It was literally 50 seconds away from my door,” smiled Chan. “So, I went to check it out on Sunday. It was galvanising.”
Despite his low tolerance for alcohol, the happy lad went back every Sunday. “I just stayed at the bar,” he admits. “I couldn’t drink much, so I just always ordered something light, bitter, and sweet. I finished, I paid, and about to pass out, I left.” His incredible perseverance paid off; seven or eight months later, Gokan finally invited him for a chat and offered him an opportunity to work with some of the world’s top mixology talents, including Shigefumi Kabashima and Tetsuo Hasegawa.
Making a drink is just like performing and designing. The glassware, the concept behind the drink, the garnish — it is a drinkable design. And the bar is my stage. – GN Chan, Double Chicken Please
In 2017, Chen, a veteran of Gokan’s Speak Low in Shanghai, reunited with Chan in New York with plans to set up their own bar together. Little could they know it would be a long and oftentimes dramatic road to get Double Chicken Please going.
“(Initially), we just wanted to do a 36-seater bar — nice, cosy, and very easy-going. But we spent four and a half years just looking for a space in New York. We almost gave up because we couldn’t get a space locked down. Every time, after six to eight months of negotiation — four different times — the landlords disappeared or went to jail. Once, at the last minute, they had a party and got caught serving minors. Our liquor licence got cancelled that day, a day before we signed,” laughs Chan. So instead, the duo took their sunshine yellow Volkswagen minibus and did bar pop-ups across the country, but always with an eye on New York.
The unusual name was a holdover from his design studio aspirations, a winking reference to the best friends’ college monikers. “My best friend’s nickname was ‘Turkey (huo ji)’, and mine was ‘Chicken Fillet’ (ji pai). So it’s all about chicken. My favourite design firm in college was Super Potato in Japan, and I realised the name didn’t have to be profound; it just needed to be funky and fun,” he explains.
Three years on, the Lower East Side drinking den had successfully weathered the pandemic-induced lockdowns of its early days to emerge as a cult favourite. Seats are famously hard to snag; wait times run from 30 minutes to two hours. Expect draft cocktails, or taptails, in the more casual, industrial-style Front Room. At the back was the second concept, The Coop, where Chan’s industrial design background comes to the fore in signature cocktails like French Toast, incorporating “hacking design”, a concept he picked up in college. “I always see things through the lens of deconstructing and rebuilding,” he lets in.
The brunch favourite is broken down, recreated in liquid form, and “reverse paired” with an espresso martini-flavoured cookie. To capture the sensation of sipping on a piece of sweet eggy bread, the flip-style cocktail combines Grey Goose vodka with toasted brioche, maple syrup, coconut, milk, and egg. Cold Pizza, another standout tipple, is a tongue-in-cheek transmutation of a margherita pizza into a margarita with Parmigiano Reggiano, tomato, and basil.
“We wanted to create something that resonates with people. A lot of people in New York will have it on a weekend morning. You have a French Toast, and then you order a Bloody Mary, or something savoury, or an Espresso Martini with it. Nothing beats nostalgia.”
View this post on Instagram
Naturally, merchandise is also in the works. “Turkey is still working with us. He’s actually the secret weapon that people don’t see, but everything that’s visual or graphic comes from him. We’re working on jackets to vinyl records with our own music, to skateboards, and even furniture.” It looks like that modish crimson suit Chan donned at the World’s 50 Best Bar 2023 ceremony in Singapore might just be an early prototype.
But what Chan really wants to push for in 2024 is a community-wide dialogue about how to move the industry forward and tackle issues such as laws that are still rooted in the Prohibition era and better rights for hospitality workers.
“We just applied for asylum for one of our employees from Ecuador. And that’s something really close to mine and Faye’s hearts,” he shares. “His dream is to bring his two kids to New York with him, and the only way to do it is through asylum. We’ve finally started the process, which is huge. They deserve a better life.”