When you are behind some of the most praised nightlife joints in New York city, what comes next? “It had to be food because I have a great passion for it,” says Christopher Barish, who once served as a key player in the development and launch of America's most notable nightclubs and restaurants, including Moomba, Gordon Ramsay Pub and Grill, as well as Gordon Ramsay Steak. “These days, I take pleasure in a well assembled, All American burger and an out-of-this-world CrazyShake,” says the proud owner of award-winning Black Tap Craft Burgers and Beer, which just opened its Malaysian outpost at Sunway Resort Hotel Kuala Lumpur last week.
An urban concept restaurant that offers a casual vibe reminiscent of a classic American luncheonette, Black Tap traces its origins to a 15-seat burger shop in March 2015 on Broome Street in the SoHo neighbourhood of Manhattan. But more seductive than the food itself were the opportunities of innovation and expansion. Responsible for a menu breakthrough was a diligent crew who experimented with whimsical adornments, add-ons and unusual flavours for their milkshakes. Toppings made for the social media era such as cotton candy, swirled rainbow lollipops, M&M’s affixed to sides of shakes and cakes stacked tall like edible Jenga are enjoying their digital moment and racking up a great following.
Like the many Black Tap outlets dotting across the world including The Venetian Resort Las Vegas; the Downtown Disney District at Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California; and Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands, the Malaysian stronghold has a unique DNA on its own. Saunter into the restaurant at noon and it poses as a casual modern diner where mall-goers and office workers huddle over a spread of burgers and chicken wings in an atmosphere orchestrated by 1980s and 90s hip-hop music. At night, the place transforms into a palace of fun for adults as the gleaming neon lights, the swoosh of craft beer flowing through taps with black handles (get it?) as well as the art-covered walls by homegrown street artist Kenji Chai radiate the promise of a good time.
“After opening at the Marina Bay Sands in 2018, it was only natural to look to its immediate neighbour, Malaysia, which has a rich food culture that’s very inspiring,” said Barish, who, despite never visited Asia prior to Black Tap’s debut in the Lion City, worked with local chef and a logistics team over the pandemic to set up the 165-seater dining establishment with an outdoor patio and a mezzanine level with its dedicated bar for private groups of about 50 people.
In a casual chat over an ice-cold Tropical BiA Heart of Darkness craft beer, Barish, also an entrepreneur and film producer, shares more about his F&B journey as well as the secret ingredient to his worldwide-acclaimed burger business.
No Black Tap is the same in the world. How do you approach the menu and decor in various locations while staying true to your New York roots?
I think it is very important to know who you are as a brand. Black Tap was an organic endeavour with a very small core menu. We did not attempt to put something out of this world on the table that we think people will consider it super cool. Once we have established that, we maintain that identity wherever we go, whether it is Geneva, Bahrain or Dubai, but also keep ourselves attuned to the local needs. For example, Vegas has a truffle burger, California has more vegan options, Singapore has a Straits Shake with pineapple cookies, and Malaysia has the Percik Grilled Chicken Sandwich and a fiery Chilli Flake Shake.
After graduating from New York University with a film degree, you, at 27, co-founded the revolutionary Light Group that went on to define the nightlife scene. Vanity Fair even called you “King of Clubs”. How different is managing a nightlife portfolio from a restaurant chain?
Wow, we are talking about a memory from 2000. So, before I established the first Light in midtown Manhattan, which was later brought to the Bellagio in Las Vegas, I actually invested in a bar called Moomba, where celebrities or famous actors would sometimes pop in. Imagine this — there was only one room for about 85 people, and it was completely full every night. Nobody could get in! It was that crazy. Light took on a different approach as we introduced a bottle service concept to Las Vegas clubgoers and merged live talent with traditional music programming. There was a strong vision as to how I wanted the brand to move forward.
The same goes with Black Tap. I started it at Venetian because Las Vegas is a vibrant and exciting city that I love, and it is a market I know very well. Running clubs gave me the adrenaline and excitement but I wanted to do something else that can bring people together and bond over a meal. Both fields still overlap in my world though — my first DJ from my club days still programmes the playlists across the world.
You opened a few dining establishments for Gordon Ramsay. How was it like working with him? Are both of you friends?
Yes, we’ve done two projects with him in 2012 at Caesars Palace. I would like to think we have formed a good friendship. What I really admire about him is the energy, drive and passion, be it on- or off-screen. I don’t know how he can be in several places within a short span of time. He’s everywhere.
Restaurants often talk about innovating to ensure brand longevity. But longevity does not always mean relevance. How do you keep your customers engaged?
This is an interesting debate. Not naming names but I remember speaking to a certain American multinational chain of bar-restaurants with memorabilia shops that has been around for the longest time. Some time ago, they spent an extraordinary amount of money to get people to comment about their food. Most of them said it was average. And guess what, the owners did not want to do anything about it. That felt very odd to me. You are right that longevity does not always mean being relevant but you need to always look inward and not just stay in your lane. Timing, people and resources matter. I am really glad that my wife Julie [Mulligan] is here to take over the architecture or design aspect of things. And there is also Chef Steve, who will go the extra mile to source for the freshest ingredients and craft menus that cater to the local palate. You need to believe in your people.
Did you gain this business know-how from your dad? Keith Barish co-founded Planet Hollywood in 1991 after all. What is the greatest advice he has given you?
Oh! He has a lot of words of wisdom. He is not only a serial entrepreneur, film producer and art collector but he is also the unofficial advisor to Black Tap and every other venture I’ve been in. But the most memorable advice I have received is this: “Don’t tell me the good. I know what the good is. I want to hear the problems. If you really want to be in business and succeed, look at where you’re not doing things right.” The other one is “Don’t lie to your doctor or your lawyer.” [laughs].
Dad is also good friends with Sylvester Stallone, and we heard the Rocky actor asked for a banana split milkshake to be added to Black Tap’s menu. What are some of the craziest milkshake flavours Black Tap has produced?
Yes, Stallone has been a great friend of my father’s since the “Planet” days. I used to work for him on set as a personal assistant for the neo-noir crime drama Cop Land in 1997. One year, my parents brought me to his Christmas Eve party and we started talking. He found out what I was doing and said, “why don’t you add a banana split milkshake to the menu?” since he liked it. I am a huge fan of Stallone. Who wouldn’t be?
Speaking about flavours, we’ve collaborated with so many brands, films or TV shows so we can offer something different from time to time. We’ve done several pop culture-inspired ones like Friends, Mean Girls, Stranger Things, Frozen and Marvel. We even did one for the NBA.
What should a first-timer order at Black Tap?
If you are a huge fan of meat, I definitely recommend the All American. There should also be brussels sprouts, chicken wings — I know Steve told you about the white miso barbecue flavour but the Korean barbecue has always been a bestseller — and a really good CrazyShake. Personally, the cotton candy is my all-time go-to but hey, everyone should go pick their milkshake based on what they feel on that day. That should be the way when you visit Black Tap everytime.
Black Tap Craft Burgers & Shakes opens daily at 11am to 11pm, in Sunway Resort Hotel. See more here.