If you needed a sign that Little Jumbo Restaurant and Bar is a little slice of the Big Apple in Victoria, it comes from the advertising board outside the entrance featuring a written endorsement from the New York Times.
Since its separated from the outside world by a hallway, you’re intrigued as to what lies behind the door with the logo featuring the elephant Jumbo, first made famous by P.T. Barnum’s iconic American circus in the 1800s.
What you’ll find is one of the city’s preeminent cocktail bars, now in its 10th year and still brimming with the quality and high standards that have made it a pioneer.
At the helm of the bar is manager Jeffrey Dillon, who spent five years managing bars in the Big Apple of New York and shines with that experience and expertise.
“When Little Jumbo came around, there weren’t a ton of cocktail bars in Victoria, so it was a big part of establishing Victoria’s cocktail scene and has been a bit of an incubator for a lot of the other restaurants and bars focusing on cocktails,” says Dillon.
“The bar was set up by Little Jumbo’s first employee, Shawn Soole—now of Clive’s Classic Lounge fame—and over the years many people have played a part in building Little Jumbo.
“So, we’re well established within Victoria and the Pacific Northwest as a premier cocktail destination. In 2015 we were nominated for Best New Cocktail Bar by the Tales of the Cocktail Foundation’s Spirited Awards. For the last five years we’ve been awarded Best Cocktail Bar in the Best of the City People’s Choice Awards.”
Dillon hails from Portland, Oregon, and has been bartending for 15 years. During his time in New York City, he was the head bartender at the now-Michelin-star-awarded restaurant Estela, and worked at Dante, lauded as the world’s best bar in recent years.
“Restaurants work so hard to achieve a certain level of success or acclaim on the scene. But I’m most interested in what people do after that. For a place like Little Jumbo, our real mark of success is that we still add something really important to the Victoria scene a decade in.
“We offer a classic cocktail experience, rooted in New York’s pre-Prohibition style, old-world wines, and a straightforward, classic dining experience.”
Little Jumbo offers a unique atmosphere, where the lights are low, the music mellow and the atmosphere intimate.
“When you come off the street and down the hallway, there’s this separation from the outside world,” says Dillon. “It’s a protective environment and it envelops you in this intimate dining experience, which is what I’ve always loved about bars and restaurants. They’re places you can go where someone serves you, and you can relax, read a book, go on a date or have an important family celebration.”
What makes a signature drink
I think it’s a drink that tells the story of your bar or restaurant. For us, being well-rooted in classic cocktail styles is something that’s a signature for us because it helps us tell the story going back more than 150 years to the original Little Jumbo in New York. This is also where a lot of our guests have their very first Sazerac or Martinez cocktail. That’s a signature style of Little Jumbo, and our cocktail menu is an extension of that.
What traits make an excellent bartender?
The two key traits are empathy and work ethic. My primary goal as a bartender is to give the guest an exemplary experience. So, having empathy, and being able to listen to somebody and interpret what they want, is key. Sometimes you’re on a date and the best thing I can do for you is keep everything flowing and not intervene. As for having a really strong work ethic, what separates a great cocktail from an average one is a focus on quality, and my refusal to send you out something subpar.
What’s hot right now?
Maison Derrière is doing really well. It’s our version of a traditional Clover Club (which I sampled—it was a gem) dating back to 1914. A traditional Clover Club is gin, lemon juice, dry vermouth and raspberry. And that’s shaken with an egg white, so it has kind of a meringue layer of froth. That’s always a crowd-pleasing drink. This one is made with crème de cassis, St-Germain, and Citadelle (a gin from France), so it’s got a lot of floral characteristics to it. It’s probably our most visually appealing cocktail.
Where does Little Jumbo sit within the fabric of Victoria’s
This is such a special part of the world to eat and drink. We have amazing produce on the island, fresh local seafood, a great wine region in the Cowichan Valley, and an amazing, unique culture here where every day, all summer long, a giant cruise ship comes here full of people from all over the world. So for Little Jumbo to be here year-in, year-out and to be a consistent, high-quality, steady hand in the restaurant scene—it gives people a sense of reassuring stability in their community.
To learn more about Little Jumbo, visit littlejumbo.ca.