Revs is a little bit like TCS. When it first opened in 1997, just two years before this august publication, it was a fresh and new idea. It was, as the menus proudly proclaim, ‘the original vodka bar’. Then, over the years, competitors sprang up. The Regal opened just down the road, selling stickier drinks at cheaper prices, and Revs lost its niche. Revolution knows this, and it wants to change.
Like TCS’ Lent redesign, Revs has tried to do something new before. Last year’s Revolucion de Cuba rum bar was sexy, but the metaphorical lipstick and heels didn’t match the rest of Revs’ outfit. A more radical rethink was needed. Has Revolution pulled it off this time? Let’s just say that if the new-look TCS website is half as pretty as the new Revolution, we’ll be doing well.
Back in the mists of time in 2010, when CUSU still ran ents (a shocking notion to the freshers among you, I’m sure), Revs was the Tuesday night destination to rival Cindies. But even then, the combination restaurant/bar/club vibe gave it an image problem. Whilst it was nice to be able to escape Cindies’ sweaty cheesefest, the wallpaper and comfy armchairs did make it feel as if you were fifteen and partying in someone’s living room. Now the brand has decided to inject some identity back into the bar side of things by going back to basics with classic drinks and premium ingredients.It’s grown-up, it’s classy, it’s no longer sickly shooters served on a plank, but home-infused creations made with fresh fruit behind the bar in a proper demi-john.
Revs has matured. It had a gap year in Cuba, thought about its mistakes, went off to Russia/university (bear with me here) to find itself, and has returned from its travels not with a wristful of scratty bracelets, but with some really delicious drinks. This isn’t a case of ‘let’s change the font and whack in a Books section!’ so much as a tastefully radical overhaul. We barely recognised the place. I’m not going to lie and say that a muffled ‘wow’ escaped our lips as we walked in, but, like reuniting with a childhood friend who has suddenly got really fit, there was a definite sense of reappraisal . Your college mother’s Revs, this ain’t.
Lighter and brighter than before, the comfy decor could have been taking a nod from Quayside rival Las Iguanas. It too, does Latin-inspired food and cocktails, but Revolution isn’t trying to copy it. Whilst Las Iguanas is more of a restaurant experience, Revs’ menu plays second fiddle to the drinks. You wouldn’t go there for a gourmet meal, but with a menu that offers deliciously messy Denver wet fries, to bourbon burger to butternut squash cannelloni, there’s no reason to leave hungry ether.Ingeniously, they serve pizzas from 9pm til late. Why don’t all nightclubs do this? Anywhere that can save its revellers a cold, harsh trek to Gardies by offering melted cheese on bread in situ is onto a good thing.
The Cuban cocktails in fourth floor Revolucion de Cuba are great, but it’s back on the ground floor where the exciting changes are happening. Vodka Revolution has gone back to its roots, and now that vodka has a brand name. You’ll see it everywhere, from the menus to the walls, in bold, confident white : Stolichnaya. Revs is serving the good stuff, and they want you to know it. But rather than just relying on the recognition of the Stoli brand, when they wanted to do more interesting flavoured vodkas, they didn’t just bring in the Stoli stable, but went all out and installed professional demi-johns behind the bar so they could infuse vodka with real fresh fruit flavours in-house. I’m reminded of the time, when, to my unashamedly middle-class horror, I saw pre-made creme brulee mix being delivered to the Cafe Rouge on Bridge St. Revs doesn’t want any part in such re-mixed fakery. It’s about getting back to the artistry and flair of cocktail-making; something the retro decor and Latino-flavoured swing band really helped with.
If you’ve ever fancied yourself a bit of a mixology maestro, they’ll even let you get behind the bar and give it a go! We were ushered to the new cocktail experience area and told to pick anything from the menu. After our personal barman imparted some tricks of the trade ( the ideal cocktail contains a balance of four types of ingredients: sweet and sour flavours, and strong and weak alcohol content) we were let loose. The array of shiny bottles recalled a Potions class and we were eager to try some alcoholic alchemy. Thankfully our bartender wasn’t as exacting as Severus Snape; my colleague deftly created a classic Tom Collins and its new Chase Marmalade ‘breakfast’ version, whilst my own attempts were rather more haphazard. I did manage to produce a drinkable Honeyberry Sour though. The new drink is a honey, blackberry and raspberry confection. Thanks to the masterclass, I now know that the secret ingredient is egg white, whisked to a foam by shaking it with a spring.
If all this talk of artisan infused-spirits and exotic ingredients alarms you, fear not. The company hasn’t entirely abandoned its roots and you can still get your sticks of shots and Jagerbombs. There’s a sense that the company are almost poking fun at their old incarnation: the menu calls their old mainstays ‘disco cocktails’ and tongue firmly in cheek, offers the ‘Pornstar Martini’ – passion fruit with a prosecco chaser (I was dared to order it with a straight face and failed, dear reader).
From £24.95 per person, the classes don’t come cheap, but you get at least two cocktails per person as well as welcome drinks and shots. Really though, you’re not so much buying the drinks as the knowhow of the bartender and the hands-on experience. The £29.95 ‘Prohibition package’ even comes with fancy dress (that you can keep!) to take you back to one of Gatsby’s parties. If you’ve got a birthday looming and want to escape the formal/Cindies cycle without actually reverting back to a childhood jelly and ice-cream party, this would be a good alternative. Having said that, two different staff members told me about their pride in going the extra mile to make customers happy, so if you wanted to book the place out for jelly and ice-cream, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if they offered you a selection of vodka jellies and a birthday ride on Daisy the cow.
Despite the place being packed, the staff were incredibly attentive and we were never kept waiting for a drink. It would be unrealistic to hope for this level of service every day, but then it isn’t every day that Revs is host to stilt-walkers, fire-eaters, and dancing girls with feather bottoms offering tasters from the snacks menu. Skip the stuffed jalapenos, and go for the mojito prawns and sweet, sizzling sausages. Despite the fact that it was a high pressure event on a busy Saturday night– Cambridge is one of the first towns in the country to experience ‘the evolution of Revolution’ – everyone on the Revs team took the time to talk to us.Whether their enthusiasm was real or just professionally feigned doesn’t really matter – the excitement about the reborn Revolution was contagious. Revs feels like somewhere worth going to in its own right now,just as a stop-off on the way to somewhere bigger and louder. And this is coming from an ancient, jaded fourth year who owns twelve different types of tea and can’t be coaxed down from Castle Hill for anything less than a damned good time.
Zoah Hedges-Stocks with additional reporting by Tom Watson