A little over a year ago, Martin Cate–the restauranteur and cocktail expert best known for his San Francisco rum bar Smuggler’s Cove–decided to expand into new territory. His business partner, Alex Smith, wanted to take on gin, but they didn’t want to open up just another gin bar. As Cate puts it, they wanted to “smuggle-ize” it: design an immersive experience that makes their customers feel like they’ve stepped out of San Francisco and into a Victorian Steampunk fantasyland.
Expanding on that vision, Whitechapel, which opened on Monday, riffs off the London underground train station built in the 1800s. “The interior concept came to me from the idea that today in London there are over a dozen abandoned underground stations all the city, right under your feet when you’re walking around,” says Cate. He wanted the place to feel as if a group of friends during the Victorian era had found one of these abandoned stations, broken in and created a private clubhouse and gin distillery.
“Every space I’ve done has a backstory and concept behind it. I like to have a story to tell, to both make it an immersive, enriching for guests and to guide the interior designers—everything has a purpose and a meaning,” says Cate. “It helps when you’re designing to say: ‘This is an underground station that’s been abandoned, there needs to be rust, to be water damage to the ceiling.’ There’s a nice patina of age to it that makes it more real.”
Upon entering the bar, visitors have to pass through a narrow service tunnel–complete with a faux ticket booth–that opens up into an expansive bar area called The Platform. Working with designer Ignacio Gonzalez, Cate built in high barrel vault ceilings that echo the shape of the Underground platform with four metal buttresses and center lamps that are a reproduction of the old lamps at the train stations. Behind the bar, Cate has put in a “last call bell” cast by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, the U.K.’s oldest continuously operating business–and the same foundry that produced Big Ben and the Liberty Bell.
Behind the main bar room there’s an area that resembles an old distillery with “a Jules-Verne-below-decks-industrial feel to it,” says Cate. Hang a left to enter the final section of the bar: an opulent lounge area called The Gin Palace, based on the homes gin producers would buy and fix up to serve gin in during the early 1800s.
The secret to creating a fantastical, immersive space, Cate says, is to stay true to your vision down to the every last detail. Check out more of the design features in the gallery above.