In Memphis, it's only mildly uncustomary to walk into a bar where a woman wearing bunny ears is seated in an armchair surveying the scene. This particular woman is Hayley Milliman, one half of the duo behind Dream Bars. She and business partner Miles Kovarik have just launched their latest concept (they're also the team that created Potterfest) in a seldom-used corner of Cafe Society.
The idea behind Dream Bars is ambitious: Every few weeks, they stage another pop-up bar with a new theme in a new location. From now through September 30th, it's Wunderland, with an Alice in Wonderland theme. The next pop-up, launching in early October in a different place ... who knows? Though we might see the pop-up bars resurface at Cafe Society again one month, we'll never see the Alice theme again. With this sort of turnaround, you'd expect a lackluster presentation. But Hayley and Miles, I learned, don't half-ass anything.
A friend and I visited the Wunderland bar last week, and the bartender immediately handed us two apothecary bottles marked "Drink Me." This is a good way to get people to hang out at your bar. Another great way to get people to hang out at your bar is to offer a selection of drinks that include an alcoholic hot tea and an absinthe cocktail. We got one of each, then we got another of each, and then we hung out with Hayley and Miles and yammered for several hours.
Normally, I credit the alcohol for any ability to talk to strangers, but Miles and Hayley are easy to talk to and eager to share their ideas about moving forward with Dream Bars. Miles excitedly explains his vision but credits Hayley with bringing all the intelligence to the table ("Duh, she's a woman," I wrote in my notes). Their passion is obvious, as anyone who has attended one of their Potterfest events knows well. They have an ease with discussing their hopes for Dream Bars that is refreshing and, for a cynic like me, inspiring.
After traveling extensively and hanging out in concept bars all around the globe, Hayley and Miles figured they could pull off a similar deal in Memphis. Their goal is to get their patrons to re-think their bar experience, and to head home and, as Miles put it, say to themselves, "Well, that was interesting."
Here in Cafe Society, they've provided a full experience, from a lavender scent to a playlist wherein each song vaguely references Alice in Wonderland. The drinks are served in teacups, many of which Hayley found at Goodwill. The Alice theme, while by no means an easy undertaking, is just the start. They promise that each concept fuels the next and each idea will be a little more out there, but we won't know what's next until October.
- Hayley Milliman
The awesome thing about Dreams Bars is that it promotes a symbiotic relationship between the company and the host bar/restaurant. Dream Bars will use an under-utilized space in a host bar and not only take advantage of the spare room but also provide exposure for the place. The chef of each host restaurant will provide insight for the menu. Cullen Kent, the chef and owner of Cafe Society, worked with Dream Bars to craft a themed food menu for the Alice concept. (They had a mushroom appetizer called "Eat Me," but I had already been down the absinthe road and so I tapped the brakes.)
Providing exposure for existing spaces isn't the only way that Dream Bars embraces Memphis, of course. They also craft their drink menu using local spirits from Old Dominick, and 10 percent of their profit is donated to a different local charity (the charity, like the theme and location, will change each time).
The sort of innovation that went in to Dream Bars, from the décor to the drinks, is what makes it stand out. In a city full of fun and interesting bars, it's hard to come up with something new. They've succeeded. The drinks are fantastic (I tried them all, even one made with spiced rum that ended up being delicious), and the atmosphere was a perfect backdrop to make two new friends and somehow end up talking about Vin Diesel and the correct pronunciation of "Budapest." Alice welcomes visitors Thursday through Saturday nights, from 7 p.m. until midnight, and I urge you to approach that fun couple, one of whom will be wearing bunny ears, and introduce yourself. We wouldn't want to lose them to some other city.
Dream Bars Wunderland at Cafe Society (212 N. Evergreen) through September 30th.