Brighton and Hove punches well above its weight when it comes to great cocktail bars. Nick Mosley talks to Steve Lee, proprietor of one of the newest additions, Nautilus Lounge.
Tell us a bit about yourself…
I came into the hospitality industry via the kitchen – though I'd be exaggerating to describe myself as a chef – and soon found myself in love with pub life. Prior to moving to Brighton in 2009, I'd worked for a management company then taken on a six year tenancy with Brakspear Brewery at a rural pub near Henley-on-Thames. It was a ‘posh community boozer’, with good food but drink-led; it was successful enough that I could relocate and afford some time off before deciding what to do next.
How did you come to open Nautilus Lounge?
About a year after arriving in Brighton I was offered the management position at a new nightclub opening on St James's Street – it was a very different challenge and I ran the venue for almost a decade. When the owners were retiring they sold off their businesses, including offering me the lease here, which I took over at the end of 2019.
The bar was over-due a facelift and rebrand; I'd already decided on the 'undersea' theme – making the best of our basement location – and had been experimenting with cocktails.
I was anticipating a more gentle transition than I experienced with the pandemic. When Covid-19 arrived, doing my best to turn that huge negative into a positive, I took the opportunity to completely transform the place. It was a few insane months of painting, plastering, papering, purchasing, and panicking and somehow, literally hours from our scheduled launch, the Nautilus Lounge emerged!
What’s the concept of the bar?
St James's Street is generally 'in your face' but we wanted to create a haven with a more relaxed atmosphere and just a touch of class: table service as standard, cosy for couples and small groups, and all joined together in worship of the gods of great drinks and great music. The baby grand was actually a last-minute addition, but has become central to the ethos with pianists and singers through the week.
How did you design your menu?
The menu came via extensive experimentation from the crew and I. Again, it was quite a learning curve – and tasting all the new drinks was an onerous task – but we bravely muddled through.
My desire to offer variety (plus a bit of indecisiveness, it's true) meant we launched with a list of nearly 70 cocktails, and keeping things consistent and replicable was priority.
The list is about one third Nautilus Originals, one third Classic Cocktails, and the remainder our spins on the classics. We continue to offer a huge choice of flavours and styles, and we've been able to keep expanding the selection of home-made and fresh elements... and I’d like to think that the health benefits of freshly juiced cucumber and celery help balance the alcohol content.
Do you run any special events or themed nights?
Every night is a special event at Nautilus Lounge!. Seriously, we have a lot going on: weekly Open Mic with Miss Kate on a Sunday – encompassing anything from spoken word, to karaoke-style, to full bands, to tuba solos – and our Nautilus Perplexer quiz every Monday. Thursdays we always have a vocalist – from new artists to drag queens performing ‘undressed’ and showing their skills without the warpaint.
On Friday and Saturday, Colin and Eveshka are our resident pianists, but we’ve also a monthly Jazz Friday, Chris the human jukebox taking requests one Saturday a month and other performers on an occasional basis.
We’re also in the process of launching a monthly late-night funk and soul session with DJ Afrocat. It’s also a brilliant space for private events – we had a run of cracking birthday parties through the Winter – with plenty of space and privacy off the street.
Where do you like to go out to eat and drink in Brighton on a night off?
My time off is frankly spent mostly like a hermit – recovering – but immediately nearby I love Yelken on St James’s Street; Bonsai Plant Kitchen is fantastic (and virtuously vegan – I do try!) and Curry Leaf Café is another favourite – I took the crew there for our last Christmas party (of which we try to have at least four a year) and the food was divine.
Let’s face it, we’re blessed with so many great bars and restaurants in Brighton, I just haven’t the time or energy to keep up with them all.
Nautilus Lounge, 129-130 St James's Street, Brighton BN2 1TH
01273 965 270 • www.nautiluslounge.com