Often, it’s Tiki drinks, the cloyingly sweet ones made with bad rum and downed with lo mein, that one associates with the cocktail offerings at many Chinese restaurants. But Hang Dai, located on Dublin’s busy Camden Street, is not a suburban eatery that relies on faux palm fronds and platters of General Tso’s Chicken to sate patrons.
Opened last fall by boyhood friends chef Karl Whelan and Will Dempsey (who works as a DJ), the hot spot, with a name that endearingly translates to “brothers,” is known for its prawn toast, crispy cabbage and a house specialty—duck straight out of the applewood-fired oven.
From its façade, Hang Dai appears to be a mere takeout joint, but beyond the no-frills counter up front is the dark, sexy dining room, decked out in hues of black and red. There’s a DJ booth, seating arranged to mimic the interior of a subway car surrounded by catchy advertisements, and a groovy mirrored bar. This is where you’ll find Gillian Boyle, one of the city’s most imaginative bartenders, concocting five-spice syrup for her playful, boozy concoctions.
To complement Hang Dai’s roster of refined, contemporary Chinese cuisine, Boyle gravitates toward drinks with what she describes as “flavors that harmonize well and adapt to the food,” whether it’s the Hang Dai Sour, a riff on the Whiskey Sour, with yuzu and green tea, or the HD Martini, starring a Taiwanese apple vinegar rinse that elevates the drink to grown-up Appletini status.
Most patrons who plant themselves on a bar stool for a bite of, say, pork-chive dumplings will spring for one of these complex libations, says, Boyle. From the back bar, she frequently reaches for Ireland’s native poitín to mix with the likes of orange sherbet and Aperol and for sake to meld with Irish whiskey and Lillet apéritif wine. Customers are intrigued by this collection of “weird and wonderful spirits” and the beverages they spawn, like the refreshing Everybody Be Cool (Tanqueray gin, honeydew melon, salted lemon, syrup and lime), or the silky egg-white-crowned Diva Plavalaguna (Ketel One vodka infused with jasmine, rose, orange bitters, elderflower, lime and soda.)
Boyle first realized she had a flair for the bar when one of her lecturers (“I was clever but not good at school,” she says) coaxed her into the world of food and beverage. Working at The Westin Dublin hotel was her first big break. “I had no friends or family in hospitality, so I had a basic understanding of it when I began there,” she says. “The Westin gives you an opportunity to be yourself with the guests. Being able to better their experiences, either by going the extra mile or establishing relationships with regulars, solidified my passion for people.”
After the Westin, Boyle was whipping up cocktail menus centered on Irish ingredients like gooseberries behind the bar of popular Dublin restaurant Fade Street Social.
Then she worked in London at the celebrated Shoreditch cocktail haunt Callooh Callay. Originally, she had moved to the city for another job, and when that didn’t work out, the bar’s then-GM snatched her up. “It was a minefield of products, equipment and categories of liquor I had never seen before,” she says. “I wanted to bridge the gap between the two cities and connect Irish bartenders with the cocktail scene in London.”
At Callooh Callay, she ventured deeply into her craft, working alongside barmen like Simon Toohey and Bobby Hiddleston, who, she says, “exposed me to the many ways and styles of bartending, immersing me in the classics.” And there is one lesson from her time in London she holds dear: “No matter how aesthetically pleasing your bar and drinks are, it’s the family and the love of the team that breathe life into it.”
Lucky for Boyle, the good-looking playground of food and music that Whelan and Dempsey have created at Hang Dai happened organically, remarkably built on decades of friendship. “Making recommendations for them and seeing their tables full of cocktails is just an amazing experience every night,” Boyle says.