Why Sago House Is Asia’s Most Hospitable Bar

The homegrown bar, which received the top hospitality honours at Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2023, charms with its personable and genuine service in a tucked away shophouse.
by June Lee
Sago House

Photo: Sago House

A cosy hand-built bar that seats 35 people at most and serves a rotating menu of five to six cocktails in Chinatown received the top hospitality honours at this year’s Asia’s 50 Best Bars awards. Crowned the winners of the Michter’s Art of Hospitality Award, Sago House edged out capacious hotel bars that have dominated the category since it started in 2020.

Previous winners are BKK Social Club in Bangkok and Singapore’s MO Bar and Manhattan Bar. Sago House also soared to number 10 on the influential list — a fitting way to celebrate its third year of operations.

According to the organisers, the hospitality award is determined by Asia’s 50 Best Bars voters, who are asked to name the one bar where they received the best hospitality experience during the voting period. There are no prescribed criteria that the bars need to hew to. William Drew, director of content at 50 Best, suggests that it could be attention to detail, ambience, and vibe created in the bar — or, most likely, a combination of all these elements.

Sago House

The three founders of Sago House (left to right): Jay Gray, Desiree Jane Silva, and Abishek C George. (Photo: Sago House)

Finding their hustle

The three founders, Abishek C George and recently married couple Jay Gray and Desiree Jane Silva unveiled Sago House in mid-2020 — one of the worst possible times in the F&B industry. “When we opened, Singapore went into its first lockdown. We had to think of ways to be hospitable without having a venue to host them. We wrote messages to our guests for all the deliveries, had Zoom sessions where we could make our drinks together, and gave virtual tours of the bar,” Gray recalls.

With extensive industry experience, the founders always had a grounded ethos, best exemplified by the group’s laid-back motto, Don’t Try by American poet Charles Bukowski. “Sago House was never about making the best drinks or getting too geeky with it. We wanted to be friendly, approachable, and not make anyone feel intimidated,” Silva says candidly.

“We can give you a shitty drink and you’ll forgive us, but if we show you a shitty time, you’ll probably never come back.” As she points out, Sago House was so named to help guests feel at home with their upcycled and hands-on build, giving a level of authenticity that can’t be faked.

The cocktail programme, which changes weekly, features drinks that are created based on the availability of ingredients, topical relevance, and some are even inspired by regulars. Guests can expect to find highballs, sours, daisies, tropical drinks, and more.

Making welcomes memorable

One of their most memorable touches is the exuberant shouts of ‘Hello!’ when guests walk in. “From my last days in Sydney, Daniel Knight, then-owner of Hinky Dinks and Author, entrusted me with his hospitality forward cocktail bar,” shares Gray. “His mentality was always to win them at the door. We ran a skeletal crew of one bartender, one on the floor, and one in the kitchen, so you couldn’t not be on point. It doesn’t matter if you are 12 drinks deep; if that door opens, you greet that guest. It was one of the best hospitality learnings I ever had and something I’ll take to every venue I work at or own.”

Another personalised touch at Sago House is writing guests’ names in chalk on the wooden tables, a practice that came about since they were already writing the week’s cocktail offerings on the windows. Silva affirms that the staff love meeting people, and having a chat over the ever-changing drink menu adds to the friendly neighbourhood bar vibe. “Being great hosts was something that was very important to Silva — who was from 28 HongKong Street, so she made sure the entire team ate, breathed, and lived this ethos,” laughs Gray.

Sago House

The cocktail menu at Sago House is refreshed every week, across six categories: strong up, strong down, daisies, highballs, sours, and tropical drinks. (Photo: Sago House)

While other bars may have difficulty finding staff that embody this personable service, Silva lets on that they have been lucky on the hiring front. “Most of our hires have come to Sago as guests first, really liked our style of service, and then reached out to work with us. They already knew whether they could fit in with our brand and style of service, which is the hardest part. Everything else, you can teach,” she expounds.

The cocktail menu at Sago House is refreshed every week, across six categories: strong up, strong down, daisies, highballs, sours, and tropical drinks. (Photo: Sago House)

Hospitality, present and future

Sago House was the beginning, and each of the Sago House Group’s venues has had its own identity. Low Tide is a tropical oasis with Southeast Asian cuisine and drinks, while Underdog Inn is a New York-style tavern restaurant on Amoy Street with whole animal butchery, natural wines, and draft cocktails. Ghostwriter offers an incubation space in Singapore’s bustling Ann Siang Hill where entrepreneurs can trial run a concept.

Their expansion has been strategic and one way of giving back to the community. Says Gray, “We’re not just opening venues for the sake of expanding, but when we see potential in one of our team members to run their own concept or we see a great space that would work well for an idea we’ve been tossing around, we run with it.” One thing is for sure, what unites this group is the guest experience from the very start.

This story originally published on The Peak Singapore.

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