It’s no secret that Frankfurt’s bar scene is incredibly exciting right now, and places like Bonechina Bar are the reason why. From an elephant spraying tonic water, to a bar the size of a kitchen, Bonechina is an unusual little world in which you somehow feel right at home.
On a recent Thursday evening, amongst the neon signs and rowdy pubs in Frankfurt’s Alt-Sachsenhausen neighbourhood, a small queue was forming outside the only venue with almost no signage at all. The door wouldn’t open, but after the press of a buzzer and a moment’s wait, an apologetic bartender appeared and ushered the eager drinkers inside, explaining that Bonechina Bar was now full.
Unlike the bars around it, at Bonechina, ‘full’ doesn’t mean customers are packed in so tightly they can hardly reach the bar; it just means there aren’t any seats left. As a result, walking into Bonechina can feel like being invited to the party of a friend with impeccable taste. It’s intimate, comfortable, and glasses don’t stay empty for long.
A very select party
As with any well-planned party, a lot of thought has been put into the set up at Bonechina Bar. “It’s a challenge,” says owner Sven Riebel. “How do I prefer to work? How can I make service more efficient?” Riebel says a small bar means “bartenders need to communicate more with customers.” And Riebel knows good design is essential to running a bar successfully in a small space – his award winning first venue, The Tiny Cup, has a maximum capacity of just 16 people.
Along with 10-12 seats, Bonechina Bar also has strategically-placed cushions embedded in the wall, so standing customers have something comfortable to lean against. Beyond being functional, the cushions also blend in seamlessly with the bumpy, diamond-shaped black tiles which line the walls. No bar wall has ever been so tempting to touch.
An elephant in a china shop
The focal point of the room is a black porcelain elephant with the same geometric design as the wall tiles. Riebel says the elephant encapsulates the bar’s theme, that of the proverbial ‘elephant in a china shop,’ or as it is in English, a bull – hence the name Bonechina. The elephant also gets pride of place for its talent for dispensing homemade tonic water from its trunk. “We wanted people to meet around a spring,” says Riebel – just like they would in a small village. He’s lucky the elephant is so well-trained; if it did run amok, the first casualty would be the bar area.
And the bar itself is where Bonechina really stands out. Instead of the typical long counter top, with bartenders on one side and customers on the other, people prepare their own drinks in a sort of open-plan kitchen area with the help of a bartender. It’s a combination of table service and a house party. Once a bartender takes your order, they lead you into the bar space and explain how to make the drink. Some options, like bottled cocktails, are already mixed and simply require you to place a flavoured ice cube of your choice into a glass before pouring the contents of the bottle in. Others need stirring or, in the case of a Gin & Tonic, a trip to the elephant.
At first, “everybody’s kind of surprised that they’re supposed to do their own thing,” says Riebel. “It’s a way of giving people a bit more freedom.” Most customers appreciate being able to experiment, but Riebel is quick to add that the bartenders are flexible hosts. If someone isn’t in the mood to mix their own drink, a bartender will gladly do it for them.
This interactive service concept gives Bonechina the feeling of a pop-up bar which has become permanent. With customers mixing the drinks, there can’t be anything too difficult to prepare – you won’t see a Ramos Gin Fizz on the menu anytime soon. While that may mean the drinks on offer are less ambitious than at other places, the bar’s unique limitations breed creativity, too. For example, Bonechina is powerful proof that self-service is the natural next step for bars with bottled cocktails. After all, if the drink is already mixed, why call a bartender over just to pour it for you? And offering a range of flavoured ice adds a personalised twist to an otherwise mundane task, not to mention rewarding repeat visits.
A bar for during the week
Those visits can only be between Tuesday and Thursday, though. In a daring move for a nightlife business, Bonechina is closed on weekends and Mondays. Riebel says the limited hours aren’t about keeping his weekends free, but about making Bonechina’s unique space and atmosphere available for private events. Hiring even a small venue in Frankfurt for a birthday party on a Friday or Saturday night is prohibitively expensive, and Riebel says one of his goals with Bonechina is to change that. Since the bar wouldn’t otherwise be open on those nights, it can charge people much less to use the space. So far, event bookings have been infrequent, but Riebel is focussed on building them into a steady business. “Four functions in a month is optimum,” he says.
Bonechina’s unusual hours are also designed to maintain a relaxed atmosphere. Alt-Sachsenhausen can get rowdy enough on a Thursday night, let alone a Saturday, and a door with a bouncer isn’t the most welcoming sight. “I have no desire to run a bar with security. This is a small, manageable place you can visit during the week,” says Riebel. Regardless of its opening hours, Bonechina has already attracted a small yet loyal following.
The man behind Bonechina Bar
It’s no surprise that Riebel is pushing the envelope with Bonechina. He’s been mixing cocktails for a decade and has the kind of resume bartenders dream about. After learning the ropes from Beate Hindermann and Stefan Weber at Berlin’s haven of classic cocktails, Victoria Bar, he moved down the road to another top-tier venue, Lebensstern. It wasn’t long before Riebel was approached to join a team in Frankfurt for the opening of a new bar called Gekkos. The bar helped popularise cocktails in Frankfurt, and after two and half years, Riebel had become assistant manager and fallen in love with the city.
After taking a year off, Riebel was finally able to open his own bar, The Tiny Cup, in 2015. The small 17m2 venue made a big splash in the German bar scene, attracting attention for its clever use of space, immaculate service, and attention to detail. It’s an ethos which Riebel is keen to instil in Bonechina, too. “The biggest thing for me in a bar is not the drinks,” he says. “The biggest thing is always communication between the bartender and the customer.”
And Riebel isn’t content to rest on his laurels. He’s aiming to open a 100-room boutique hotel in Frankfurt early next year, which he says “won’t have a typical hotel bar.”
An experimental experience
So often, experimental bars get respect and regulars from within the industry, but don’t catch on with the public. They become bartenders’ bars, home to outlandish concoctions and finicky old bar tools. There’s fun to be had in such places, but they can be overwhelming, too.
Bonechina is a rare thing: a thoroughly unorthodox bar where everything experimental is designed to make customers feel more comfortable. Its careful design makes spending an evening there feel effortless. As Riebel puts it, “Bonechina is not a barkeepers’ place.” He’s right, but for a barfly, it’s an experience worth having.
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