To find the bar offering the world’s best hospitality, head down Mexico way

Emma Janzen - 31/08/2022

Hanky Panky, a hidden bar in Mexico City, has just been named as the winner of the Michter’s Art of Hospitality Award as the first pre-announced award of The World’s 50 Best Bars 2022, which will be revealed on 4th October. Emma Janzen speaks to the bar’s founder, Walter Meyenberg, to discuss how the project that started life as a private space serving cocktails for his friends evolved into one of the world’s finest speakeasies

For the bar team at cocktail bar Hanky Panky in Mexico City, good hospitality starts at home. From the smallest design details to the attentive care of every guest who visits, generosity and inclusivity can be found throughout the tapestry of the programme. And because this philosophy is rooted so deeply within the core of the business, it also extends to embrace the international bartending community as well. This is why the speakeasy – which is named after the legendary cocktail devised by bartender Ada Coleman, the first female head bartender at the Savoy in London (made with sweet vermouth, gin, and amaro) – has earned the Michter’s Art of Hospitality Award for 2022.

The Michter’s Art of Hospitality Award was introduced by 50 Best in 2020 to recognise bars offering outstanding service. It is voted on by all 650 members of the voting Academy who are each asked to name the one bar which has delivered the single-best hospitality experience during the 18-month voting period. Hanky Panky is the first North American bar to win the award, following Maybe Sammy, Australia, which won in 2020 and Salmon Guru, Spain which took the crown last year.

Humble beginnings

The origins of Walter Meyenberg’s hospitality philosophy date back to long before he began working in the bar industry. “The first memory I have of good hospitality is when my mother sat me in a baby chair, cooked me my meal and kissed my forehead. I remember it was this wonderful feeling, and for me, hospitality is that: making every single person feel special and loved,” he says, explaining how, as a child, his favourite memories were of big family dinners in Lebanon. “It’s funny because now everyone in the industry calls me the Lebanese Mama because every time we’re together I’m the one serving the dishes and pouring the wine, hugging and kissing everyone and making sure they are pampered. It’s in my DNA.”

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Bartenders at Hanky Panky want to make you feel at home with personalised cocktails

This desire to make other people happy was also the original impetus for opening Hanky Panky, which is housed in the back of a fonda [street food outlet] that serves tacos in an undisclosed location in the La Juárez neighbourhood in Mexico City. “I never intended for it to be this super cool secret bar, it was just a place for my friends and I to drink together, inspired by the bars we’d visited in Europe, Canada, New York and elsewhere,” Meyenberg says of the early days of operations, back in 2016. “Every time you’d go there you’d see old friends and meet new friends, and they would invite their friends to show them this secret place. Because of that, it started very naturally, like a family.” 

As the programme inevitably grew and attracted larger crowds, Meyenberg implemented a members’ club model to keep the experience of visiting intimate and enjoyable for everyone. “I didn’t want it to become this packed, crazy place,” he explains, though it didn’t last long that way as the list of members quickly crept up into the thousands. “I realised it wasn’t going to work, so we changed to start operating it as a proper speakeasy.”

The small footprint of the bar – there’s only room for about 40 guests – ensures that every visitor receives the same level of attention and care. “You know when you are going to a bar and someone is pretending to be super nice to you; that is not what we do,” he says. “Our mantra is that every single person is special and should be loved and treated the same, but our biggest secret is just being ourselves – every guest is taken care of so that they can see our roots, our flavours, our country and our pride for what we are. ”

Every detail counts

For Meyenberg, the concept of hospitality goes beyond how people are treated, weaving into the physical details of the bar itself as well. When designing the space, which had formerly been a Cuban restaurant that was abandoned after a fire, he made many decisions that would combine to create an ambiance that felt inviting and comfortable on a human level. “I am very meticulous and I design first for the senses,” he says, mentioning sight, sound, taste and touch. “We made the lighting amber because it’s good for the eyes and makes it feel cosy, and the barstools were super important – I wanted to have big barstools that had the feeling that you are being hugged.”  

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The bar's interior was inspired by the speakeasies Walter Meyenberg visited around Europe and North America 

No detail is too small, including the way the bathrooms look and feel. “It is important that they are spacious, that they smell good, and have good music, because people need their space in there, too,” he says. Every element works together in harmony. “The wood has a dark brown colour that is natural because it was originally burned wood from the fire – it looks beautiful with the red velvet of the stools and the white marble of the bartop; all of these details make you feel comfortable.”

In addition to running several other bars in the city, Meyenberg was also a former musician, so he curates all the playlists and makes sure the volume is played at a level where conversations can still be had without straining. “I know I say it too much, but it’s all human design. Every place I design, I focus on how it’s going to feel when you are in there. And I take all the time in the world to make it happen so it comes out just right.” 

Family first

To make the bartenders and staff feel like valued and permanent parts of the bar family, and to help instil a sense of ownership over their work, Meyenberg offers partnership in the business to folks who have worked at the bar for a long time. “This is a way of saying this space is for them, and to make everyone feel special,” he says. Professional development initiatives such as foreign language classes and opportunities to do guest shifts abroad are also offered to empower each person to reach their full potential. 

This fostering of community extends beyond Hanky Panky’s walls and into the local community. The bar often hosts educational events for industry folks (for free) to strengthen the education of Mexico City’s bar scene; the staff members also go out of their way to recommend other bars and restaurants to guests as must-sees while in town, to spread the love around to other notable programmes in the area. “When we send people to other bars we always send a to-go cocktail to the bartender at the other bar too, so the guest arrives with a cocktail. That’s a gift of hospitality,” Meyenberg adds. 

And the friendly handshakes don’t stop there. When bars around the world started to shutter due to Covid-19 closures, Meyenberg immediately opened his doors to friends from around the globe. “I invited bars that couldn't operate [in their home countries] to Mexico City because our restrictions weren’t as tight as they were in other cities. The idea was to support my friends and show them our way of hospitality in a crazy moment,” he says. Meyenberg and team took bar crews to different parts of Mexico as part of this cultural exchange. “We all needed human contact and it ended up being this beautiful thing where we developed a family much bigger than our bar or our guests.” W50BB22_aoh_hankypanky_5
The Passport menu is a masterclass in creativity with flawless attention to detail

In late 2021, the Hanky Panky team went on the road, doing guest bartending shifts and strengthening these connections with the global bar community – eight cities in 16 days – which ended up being the inspiration for their most adventurous cocktail menu to date. Called ‘Passport’, it features drinks inspired by the places they visited, plus a handful of drinks created by the bartenders at places including 1930 in Milan, Connaught Bar in London, and Florería Atlántico in Argentina. “The menu is an example of our hospitality because it gives everyone a small gift, an homage to our time together.” 

Meyenberg says receiving this award feels ‘crazy’, especially because hospitality is simply part of the fabric of his being – something that comes naturally to him and for everyone who works at Hanky Panky. “What I’m doing is just being human. I’m just being myself: I’m caring, I’m loving, I’m seeing the needs of everyone. I think for me that’s the key,” he says. “If I invite you to my home, I will do the same that I am doing at the bar. I’ll pamper you and cook for you, I’ll serve you wine. I just care about being humble, being real, and if you translate it, that’s the best meaning of hospitality.”

The World’s 50 Best Bars 2022, sponsored by Perrier, will be announced LIVE from Barcelona on 4th October 2022 at 8.20pm local time. Tune into the livestream of the event here.