The story of The Diplomat – an American envoy in Hong Kong

Elysia Bagley - 20/05/2021

An all-American bar in Hong Kongs Central district with exaggerated classic cocktails and unmissable pub grub, The Diplomat is the winner of this year’s London Essence Best New Opening Award for Asia’s 50 Best Bars, given to the bar with the highest position in the list that has opened in the past 18 months. Owner and operator John Nugent shares how the team manifested its “simple done right” philosophy through blurred lines, mini Martinis and fresh-from-the-oven chocolate chip cookies at midnight

Just over four years ago, John Nugent moved back to his hometown of Seattle, USA with hopes of opening his own bar. Happily for Hong Kong, it didn’t work out.

Hindsight proved 20/20 when Nugent took the call to discover his first solo venue, The Diplomat, had been named the London Essence Best New Opening as part of the Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2021 awards programme after landing at No.20 in the list. When you develop a concept, you write it down on paper and have an idea of what you want your bar to be; you’re confident and excited, but you never truly know if it’s going to work,” he shares. “To be honest, I fell off my barstool when I found out.”

Head inside The Diplomat and explore the bar:

“Since age 28 I thought I was capable of opening a bar – but Im so glad I didnt do it then.”

Of course, that wasn’t always how he felt. When those original Seattle plans fell through, Nugent found himself bummed out about bartending and at a bit of a crossroads – one of those ‘where-to-go; what-to-do kind’ of moments. That’s when he reached out to fellow American-turned-Hong Kong-hero Beckaly Franks of The Pontiac to ask what was up on her side of the world.

Franks said come; Nugent gladly followed. He touched down in Hong Kong’s gritty Lan Kwai Fong district with a gig at one of the city’s pioneering but now shuttered cocktail bars, Lily & Bloom. A few years later, he found an empty space in a perculiar dark alley in Central and – with the full understanding that the landlord thought he was another eccentric bartender – built a home for The Diplomat: an all-American concept with clever twists up its starched-white sleeves.

Straight from the brush strokes of Edward Hoppers Nighthawks circa 1942, The Diplomat’s wrap-around corner placement with its curved glass window and matte gold trimmings create a toss-up situation for whether you’ve found a diner or cocktail bar. It’s spot on for what it set out to be: a concept defined not by its venue category, but an understanding of the different dynamics in Hong Kong and the type of clientele who might frequent it.
Nighthawks or nightlife? The Diplomat conjures images of Hopper's masterpiece

To that end, The Diplomat has a simple heart – high quality, delicious and not overly complicated. The drinks programme has three main components: punches, minis, and rule-bending classics, the latter which includes the likes of their locally famous Irish Coffee (Irish whiskey, cognac, tensaito [Japanese sugar], coffee, cold cream) and Tarling, a
highly exaggerated” Daisy twist with pandan gin, white port, baking spices, clarified orange juice and coconut water. Then, they drive home that dedication to deliciousness with equally crushable pub grub – truffled mac & cheese, Nugent’s Nuggets and what many would call the best burger in town.

We wanted to do American-style classic cocktails and food and, in the States, a big part of making a great bar is having great food – this is a very important to us,” he says. From his start in Boston to his role in the opening of Hong Kongs popular Wagyu Mafia brand with his current business partner, Nugent’s career is peppered with restaurant experience, and so for him, the idea of a business that relies solely on cocktails does not compute.

Further, Nugent’s time in Hong Kong revealed to him the dominant trend of people having epic meals at top-end restaurants and then going to a club for drinks. The Diplomat tries to challenge that model by bridging the divide between drinking and dining experiences. For the guest, then, the only question left is “why leave?”
An American in Hong Kong - John Nugent brings diplomacy to Central dristrict

“In Hong Kong there always seems to be this dynamic of ‘is it a bar? Is it
a restaurant? What’s going on?’” Nugent explains. “We call ourselves a bar because of how much a goes into our beverage programme, but the thought process is that we want to start blurring the lines a bit more.”

Nailing this business model comes down not only to what’s on the menu but also to a venue’s hospitality. “Part of our training for the team is that the cocktails are going to sell themselves,” he says. “Introduce them nicely, give the backstory, but push the food – keep bringing it back up.” From a business perspective, this drives sales and raises average spend, but moreover, it helps realise that initial model of being a destination for all kinds of guests.

“We want to show people that you dont have to just drink here,” says Nugent. “Restaurants are the driving force of culture and neighbourhoods; a meeting place to gather. You have your home life and your work life, and we want to be that third place – somewhere to congregate and just have a good time.”

That’s also where the menu’s minis come in – just under half a serve of spirit-driven, cold-to-the-last-sip classics at 50HKD (US$6.50) a glass; a steal in Hong Kong’s notoriously pricey landscape. “We give the people the opportunity to enjoy a nice drink without breaking the bank and we’re very proud of that. Some people come for a 50-50 and a burger after work if they want to just have a night to themselves. Others come and have five minis and I love that too. It’s about making sure your guest is the most important person in front of you.”
Diplomatic community: Diplo Daiquiri Vol II; Blinker Highball; Whiskey Sour

The bar is strategically set up for those solo mini drinkers or groups alike, with multiple spaces and accompanying vibes. To the side of the main bar area is a bright pink corridor (complete with a different soundtrack) that allows the team to accommodate overflow – a spot John particularly loves because it becomes a destination in itself. And then, there
s The Social Club: a totally separate, reservation-only space with its own bar menu, a ‘Press For Champagne’ button and a more manicured guest experience. Ultimately, guests can have a drink and a memorable evening wherever they land.

Those evenings become more memorable with The Diplomat’s farewell showing of warm American hospitality via one of the team’s favourite traditions: come closing time, the last nighthawks standing get a treat – a chocolate chip cookie. “The look of adults getting a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie at a bar is a lot of fun. It’s especially nice on a really busy night – one of our bartenders just stops what they’re doing to give out cookies as a thank you.”

For Nugent, the next year is all about thanking the hardworking team behind the cocktails and cookies. “When working in a bar and accomplishing what we’re accomplishing, part of this gig is the benefits – you get to travel and have guest shifts at some the best bars in the world. But with Covid, they haven’t been able to reap those benefits.

“I think it’s really important that people give back to their teams this year and let them experience the positivity of bartending in Asia. I can’t wait for things to get back to normal so we can all share that joy together.”

Missed the live event? Catch up on the virtual ceremony and check out the full results for Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2021, sponsored by Perrier. To stay up to date with all the latest bar news from around the globe, follow us on Instagram, like on Facebook and subscribe to 50 Best Bars TV YouTube channel.