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December 22, 2011

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Zapata's and tequila make a great mix

FOUR months ago Julian Robertshaw had never managed a bar in Shanghai - he had been a chef for 23 years - but as head honcho at Zapata's Mexican Cantina, he seems like a natural, having fun and winning over staff and guests.

"The guests are happy, and the team is delighted to serve the best," says the 38-year-old Australian from Melbourne who has lived in Shanghai for the past five months.

Zapatas, one of Shanghai's most popular expat night spots, features Mexican madness nightly, with free shots of tequila for anyone who dances on the bar, spicy Mexican dishes and what it calls the best Margarita's this side of the Pacific Ocean.

Robertshaw also manages the sister restaurant Sasha's next door on Hengshan Road. He was Sasha's executive chef about six years ago in its heyday. Both are owned by Hengshan restaurant group.

"The venues are already well-known and have a good reputation," he says. "Guests come and enjoy delicious food at dinner and then they can dance and drink in the bar."

Zapatas opened in early 2004. It's known for its garden and terrace. Guests can dance inside the Cantina downstairs or in the Frida Kahlo patio bar upstairs, or settle down in the garden.

Ladies' Night is Wednesday.

Robertshaw first visited Shanghai in 2005, then worked at the Ritz in Sanya, Hainan Province, the Westin Guangzhou in Guangdong Province and the Pullman Lijiang in Yunnan Province.

"Shanghai finally drew me back, it's a very good city and you can see everything in the world going on here," Robertshaw says.

In Australia, he was in charge of restaurants and bars in Melbourne mostly but eventually moved up to Queensland for the warmer climate, but mostly he worked in the kitchen.

"For me both bars and kitchens are part of the hospitality industry," he says. "I'm lucky to have worked behind the bar in Australia, and work in high-end hotels when I came to China."

"Everybody was born to do something," he says, and for him it's working in the hospitality industry.

Talking about the difference between being a chef and a pub manager, Robertshaw says it depends on what kind of chef.

He spends a lot of time with his guests, chatting and buying the occasional drink.

Tequila drinks are Zapata's specialty and his team also designs new cocktails for different guests at their request.

Zapata's beverage manager Rodrigo Lizardi favors his Vampir mix of beer, tequila and sangrita.

"We love all the customers. Maybe the only difficult customer is the newest one who misses the products in their hometown," he says.

His key principle of management is taking care of his 150-person team - training them well and treating them well.

Zapata's holds lots of parties and Christmas and New Year's are big party times. Robertshaw is upping the amps on decor, menu, beverages, music and service.

Music is the soul of Zapatas success, he says.

He regards music as soul of a pub and Zapata's plays mostly memorable Western music from the 1990s. His personal tastes in music are broad and often depend on the moment.

"Music brings everybody together and no one will feel separated or strange," Robertshaw notes, "because you will remember these songs. They bring back memories, maybe your first kiss, or maybe you played these songs in the car while you were driving to the coast."

He picks the DJs carefully, taking the time to explain to them what's needed.

Speaking of the bar scene, he says there are "too many good places" in Shanghai. "The competition is fierce, with many opening and many closings. But competition is a good thing and makes the hospitality industry strong."

When he first visited Shanghai six years ago, the Bund had not been one of the nightlife landmarks. Now there are numerous hotspots from Xintiandi to Donghu Road.

"From wine bars to popular night clubs, Shanghai is a trendy place but it's hard to define trends in the club scene since people are moving in and out of the metropolis and there are too many options," Robertshaw says.


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