It’s hard to conceive of a Venice without Harry’s Bar. Opened in 1931 by former hotel barman, Giuseppe Cipriani, it’s found a stone’s throw away from St Mark’s Square, looking directly out at the beginnings of the Grand Canal. Calle Vallaresso, at the water’s end of which Harry’s Bar sits, is lined with designer stores, the likes of which are guarded by bouncers with earpieces, yet the location wasn’t always so exclusive. Once upon a time the Bar was part of an old rope warehouse – humble beginnings for what would become an internationally renowned destination watering hole, for both locals and visitors to Venice alike.
The Harry that donated his name to the bar was a young alcoholic, who’d been despatched by his family to Venice to sober up. He fell on hard times when his accompanying aunt abandoned him at the Hotel Europa, where he was a guest and Giuseppe Cipriani was barman. Cipriani loaned the guest some money, uncertain that he’d ever see it again. Some time later, Harry Pickering returned to Venice, repaid the loan and added an extra sum with which he encouraged Cipriani to open his own bar.
Harry’s Bar is known for inventing the Bellini cocktail and carpaccio of beef, as much as for its patrons; everyone who’s anyone in Venice will visit at least once and the list of famous names that have sought refreshment here is impressive. I, however, have been a little slow off the mark when it comes to darkening the Harry’s Bar doorstep. In spite of having visited the city multiple times over the years, at one point even working there, it was not until this year that I managed to make the pilgrimage to the bar where Ernest Hemingway was once a regular.
Unless you’re teetotal or underage, it’s de rigueur to order the bar’s invention, the Bellini cocktail, when you first go to Harry’s. Named for Giovanni Bellini, one of the city’s great artists, it’s a tasty blend of fresh peach purée and prosecco which, when combined, create a particular shade of pale orange which the painter favoured. I already knew from online reviews that the current rate of extortion for imbibing this particular cocktail at this particular bar would be €16.00 per glass. That’s a heck of a lot of dosh for one drink, especially when plenty of folk are vocal about how small the Harry’s Bar measures are, but in the end I relented. Having a Bellini at Harry’s has been on my Bucket List for so long that I figured it was time to take the financial plunge and cross it off.
And so, at cocktail hour, weary from a day pounding across Ruskin’s stones, Monsieur and I found our way to Harry’s Bar. This took a bit of doing because we walked straight past it several times, so unpretentious is the entrance. Once inside, we found a room simply decorated in Art Deco style, very little altered, I imagine, from the day the bar opened back in 1931. A waiter in smart white smock and black trousers seated us at a tiny table across from the bar. We ordered a pair of Bellinis and sat back to people-watch.
We’d arrived just after 4 in the afternoon, so luckily beat the traffic. A few minutes later and there wouldn’t have been room for us, such was the steady stream of tourists pouring through the door, mouths agape as they drank in the first impressions of the place. Given all the fuss about Harry’s Bar, it really is quite unexpectedly simple in design. Perhaps we expected lashings of gilt and brocade where Charlie Chaplin and Aristotle Onassis once sipped their evening refreshments? Venice certainly does excel at fussy. And yet, when you sit back and start to absorb the atmosphere, it’s obvious that this is an establishment that’s secure in itself and has confidence enough not to seek to impress like a Flash Harry on the make. Even better, for fans of 1930s interiors and traditional service, it’s like walking into a charming time warp.
Our Bellinis arrived in short water glasses, a small bowl of whole, green olives in tow. Having thoroughly enjoyed our Bellinis at the Centurion Palace Hotel terrace on arrival in Venice, Monsieur and I were interested to see how the original stacked up against the new kid on the block. And now, at the risk of incurring the wrath of Harry’s Bar die hard regulars, I must be honest: it was disappointing.
The Centurion Bellini was intensely peachy with a delightful fizz. It tasted as if the peach had been grown in the Garden of Eden and had fallen gently off the tree into a padded basket that very morning. Sadly, the Harry’s Bar Bellini lacked that fresh fruit quality. I’m not saying that they didn’t use fresh peaches; I trust they did. It’s just that, even if the peach content had been fresh, this Bellini still managed to taste like a blend of bottled Paga juice and prosecco. Perhaps it’s because of the excessive demand of visitors like us that their signature drink has lost its fizz. I’d suspect that’s the case. It’s just a shame that we didn’t find the Centurion Bellini within the Harry’s Bar atmosphere. We were certainly fortunate to have experienced both, but my advice to anyone intending to pay homage at Harry’s Bar – don’t order the Bellini here. Ask for one of their other traditional cocktails: a Manhattan or a Martini. Given the way those Harry’s boys shake and stir, I’m sure you’ll get the real deal and it should be better for not being produced for the masses who come here seeking to drink THE Bellini.
Would I return to Harry’s Bar? Definitely, but only when I’m cashed up and not for their blessed Bellini. I hear good things about their set menu lunches and might be tempted in that direction… Perhaps with a Sidecar apéritif.
Where would I go for a Bellini in Venice? The Centurion Palace Hotel. Ask for a terrace table. Fantastic views. AND the Bellini is a whole Euro cheaper.
Plus points: history, time-warp atmosphere, tradition, décor, free olives.
Minus points: costly, tourist haunt, the Bellini, apparently you’re not allowed to take photos but I did and no one stopped me! Woops.
How to find Harry’s Bar: stand at the end of St Mark’s Square looking out at the lagoon. Turn right. Follow the water’s edge as it leads to the Grand Canal, keeping the large white church of Santa Maria della Salute on your left. Just after the Square, there’s a small bridge. Cross it. The path will lead you into a calle on the right (Calle Vallaresso). Harry’s Bar is right on the right-hand corner of that calle.