5 Minutes with Bar Maverick Michael Callahan, Co-founder of Barbary Coast

Published - 16 January 2021, Saturday

Welcome to our series Bar Mavericks. Continuing from our last feature, we get up close and personal with some of the industry’s shining stars responsible for the ongoing transformation of the bar scene across Asia. 

Join Chris Marshall as he goes in for a no-holds-barred discussion with Michael Callahan, co-founder with Celia Schoonraad of Barbary Coast, Singapore.

Barbary Coast consists of a dual-concept scheme, Dead Fall and Barbary Coast Ballroom, spread over two floors and three historic shop-houses in Singapore’s Boat Quay.  The thematic concept behind BC is heavily influenced by the grit and glory of the gold mining era. The mastermind behind this inviting space is bartending veteran Michael Callahan. 

What Michael especially enjoys about working in F&B is “the theatrics of it all.” In today’s day and age, most of the ‘trade secrets’ are instantly accessible from mobile or laptop. There are highly detailed instructional videos on almost every aspect of the industry. Even so, his learned mind makes an industrial comparison to the way in which actors and actresses bring characters to life and says the same is true for the F&B trade in how they bring spaces and recipes to life. 

The combination of entertainer, craftsmen and salesmen defines a unified role behind his favourite bartenders, and their “unwavering passion to elicit smiles and laughter” is what he finds inspirational. When it becomes his turn ‘behind the stick’, it is Michael’s role to professionally perform to the best to the best of his ability, where the most enjoyment in the course of succeeding in F&B is played out. 

Essential qualities that Michael believes are useful in a bar are “spatial and situational awareness” — the ability to catch a passing glance and note where something is needed, or whether it does not belong, this makes for the smartest of service professionals, according to his experience.

Michael acknowledges insightful learning in sharing: “Those who are masters of the trade use current events — both personal and general — as material in their nightly show, which in turn gives them stories to tell in engaging guests in worthwhile conversation, and adds dimensions to their serving persona.” In his opinion, channelling thoughts and worries into scripted material during a work shift, provides allowance to process thoughts on subjects from different perspectives. Needless to say, going over a frame of thought with several tables throughout the night gives the time to play out different scenarios on ‘replay mode.’ “This is rather therapeutic — but of course, it’s something that’s strategically employed (with a measure of wisdom) — while any one topic may be ideal for one table, it may instantly not be appropriate for the next.”

Finally, Michael sums up his statements on essential qualities, “Most importantly, one needs a true and honest desire to make people happy. We can be a slave for sadness or a stimulant for joy, but for either, we must truly desire to see people leave our venue in a better state than they arrived, whether emotionally and/or physically.” 

Coming to the close of the session, Michael touches on what he has identified to be to be high on his list of significant achievements reached, both personally and professionally. He prefaces this share with a pearl of wisdom gained from a remarkable mentor: ‘There will only ever be a handful of times in life, where a door leading to great opportunity will be presented in front of you. It may be left ajar or perhaps wide-open. The opportunity beyond that door may be of pronounced success or equally tragic failure, however, you will never know which it will be until you have stepped through the doorway. These doors may come in the form of people or opportunities, and a great many will never grasp realisation of the chances they missed out on until they consult the truths of hindsight, and at that point, regretfully succumb to wishing they took the chance. And of those who notice this proverbial door, only few will have the bravery and conviction to step through.’ 

Michael goes on to share: “I humbly believe my greatest personal achievement has been the refusal to wallow in complacency and to confidently embark on the unknown path. Backed by solid mates, respected mentors, constant hard work and a resilient determination to explore ‘what could be’ the doors I have traversed through — have led me to relish a wonderfully abundant world of relationships, adventures and insights — experiences that I treasure daily.” 

The F&B field expert hopes that his journey will spark inspiration in others to bravely open new doors in their own lives, without fear or regret, so they can go on two settle down with grand tales of their own and look back on their life experiences to joyously find fond memories.


Chris Marshall is a well-known cocktail aficionado on the Singapore and Southeast Asia bar scene, and partner at Distilled LLP, an independent, Singapore-based brand development agency representing spirit brands both locally and regionally.


a. 16 North Canal Rd, Singapore 048828

e. [email protected]

t. +65 8869 4798

w. barbarycoastsg.com/

s. www.facebook.com/barbarycoastsg/


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RATED 7.5 / 8
Barbary Coast is an excellent throwback to simpler times. Set up and operated by old F&B hands, Celia Schoonraad and Michael Callahan, Barbary Coast is a fabulous new, slightly schizophrenic, establishment that recently opened near the iconic Boat Quay.

The establishment takes its cues from the California Gold Rush of 1849 – when drinking was done in times of both pleasure and pain. There is a no-frills bar on the ground floor - Deadfall - with various tipples to keep one entertained and excellent jalapeño poppers that were just the right level of cream cheese and spicy. On the second floor, is the Ballroom, which is much more chichi, with beautiful banquettes and alcoves, sophisticated cocktails and platters of food.

Barbary Coast reminds your writer of the old Victorian pubs in the UK that had public and saloon bars - although in this case, it was less about egalitarianism and more classism. Towards the end of the 18th century, a new room in the pub came into being: the saloon. The saloon was a room where, for the price of a ticket or more expensive drinks, entertainment was performed and beverages would be served at the table.

Deadfall has affordable and inspired cocktails based on hue (S$14) with a curated selection of draft beer (from S$6) and wine (S$12).

“As with venues in the original Barbary Coast, the space came together from an amalgamation of different materials and fixtures – you worked with what you could find, whenever it came in,” said Schoonraad.

“We wanted to recreate the ethos of the original Deadfalls, with a friendly atmosphere that’s open to all kinds of clientele – where everyone is welcome, and anyone can afford a drink,” said Callahan.

The Ballroom is more upmarket with cocktails named the Earl of Montrose (S$24) and Buttered Paloma (S$21). There are also bottles of Billecart Salmon Brut Rosé for a very reasonable (S$140).

My companion and I worked out that for around S$200, a couple could have a delightful and romantic pre-dinner bottle of fizz and a charcuterie platter (excellent) - while sat in a cosy private alcove.