I think I have been answering this question - albeit obliquely, serially - since I started this blog a year ago. However, my gadfly, The British Cowboy, challenged me the other day to come up with a more definitive, single-post answer.
So, here I will attempt that. Attempt.
1) No bar ever attains perfection. (And if it did, it probably wouldn't be any good any more! We love places - as we do people - for their individual kinks, their imperfections.)
2) I can't really lay down a single, all-embracing template for the 'great bar', because my requirements and expectations differ at different times. Perhaps we all look for different things in a bar at different periods of our lives; perhaps we even look for different things at different times of the year, or different hours of the day. And I certainly look for different things in different locales: in northern Europe and North America (where I have learned to love bars), I would almost always want to sit inside; in southern Europe or the tropics, I am much more tempted to sit outside. And so on....
3) A lot of 'great bar-ness' is specific to individual tastes and particular circumstances; in essence, you can fall in love with a place if you happen upon it at just the right time, or are lucky enough to have a really good first experience of it. Friends who haven't shared that initial bonding experience may remain mystified as to why you are so keen on the place.
Enough with the caveats; let's now try to nail some of the...
1) Good draught beer. This is mostly what I drink. Sure, it's nice if there's an extensive, and perhaps slightly exotic, selection of spirits too, and maybe even a drinkable house wine (but, face it, ladies, you're never going to be able to trust a wine that's sold by the glass); although frankly, I don't really give a rat's ass about any of that. The beer has to be good. Of course, in an environment like Beijing where none of the beer is much good, and drinking bottled rather than draught beer unfortunately has to be accepted as the norm, differentiating between bars on the basis of point no. 2) becomes even more important.
2) Reasonable prices. I am not a rich man. Even if I were one day to become a rich man, I don't think I would ever succumb to the allure of ostentatious consumption: I think it will always give me less pleasure, not more, to spend more than I need to on something. But it's not just about thrift. Low prices tie into so many of the other important qualities I shall try to itemise later: cheap bars are happy bars, friendly bars, unpretentious bars. Expensive bars tend to be full of wankers.
3) Good service. The bar staff make or break a bar 9 times out of 10 (this, sadly, is why there are so few bars to which I have formed any strong emotional attachment here in Beijing). You need people who are swift and efficient (without being uptight or obsessive compulsive), outgoing (but not too loud or hearty), and friendly (but not pushy or intrusive) - not forced bonhomie and routine humour but genuine sociability, combined with an enthusiasm for doing their job well. It's not too often you find that.
4) A hands-on owner/manager. They don't have to be there all the time, or work behind the bar themselves, but they should maintain a reasonable level of visibility; they should be in a position to know if their staff are doing a good job, if their customers are happy; and, if anything is going wrong, they should be around to put it right promptly. Even more importantly, a great bar needs some sort of distinctive 'personality', and (although this is generated also partly - and sometimes solely - by the staff and/or customers) that 'personality' is usually to some extent an extension of the owner's personality. [This is one of the key reasons why The Tree is SHIT, in my view.]
5) A dark interior. I go to bars to forget about the outside world. I don't want to be able to see the outside world going about its business through a huge fucking floor-to-ceiling window. Ideally, I don't even want to know whether it's still daylight outside, or whether it's started raining....
6) A good bar. Easily overlooked, but one of the key attributes of any drinking establishment is the bar itself, the counter. It should be long enough to accommodate everyone who'd prefer to stand or sit at the bar (as I usually do) rather than sit at a table. It should be just the right height to rest your hip against when leaning in against it (I like quite a tall bar; this is based on the fact that I am 6'3" - sod the rest of you!). It should have bar stools of a suitable height for people who choose not to stand. Ideally, it should have a brass footrail. I particularly like U-shaped or 'island' bars that give you a view of pretty much the whole room.
7) A good band of regulars. A great bar needs just the right level of custom: not so much that the place is crowded or noisy, or suggestive of being a common favourite rather than a hidden gem for those in-the-know; not so little that the place has no atmosphere, goes out of business in a few months. It can be a very tough balance to strike. They also need to be the right kind of customers - not necessarily people exactly like myself (there's no-one like me!), but people I can get along with. Not loud, obnoxious, or violent. Well-behaved, thoughtful drinkers. [Here I should refer you once again to my key early post, Two Kinds of Drunk.] Occasionally, I might be able to entertain myself in a bar by reading a magazine or a book; or sometimes, I may have gone for a particular event, such as some live music or a football game on TV; but in general, I go to a bar for company and conversation. I am not always able to go with friends, or to be sure of rallying friends to meet me there. So, an important aspect of a great bar is the reliable expectation that there will be some customers there who are not complete strangers, the sort of people you can have a friendly chat with while you drink.
8) Location. I only had to say this once, because I am not in the property business. Although you can find honourable exceptions, town centre bars usually lack most or all of the qualities that I have listed so far: their custom is too large, and too changeable, so they never establish a fixed 'personality' for themselves. Small bars in residential neighbourhoods almost invariably offer a readier welcome, a cosier charm.
9) Accessibility (i.e., closeness to home). I put this in at the end of the 'Essentials', because, while it is usually for me - for nearly everyone, I think - a key factor in choosing a favourite bar..... well, I can live without it: I'll travel quite some distance to a bar that has all the other elements of greatness in place. I've always been a big walker; and here in Beijing, taxis are so plentiful and so inexpensive that it is no big deal for me to frequent bars several miles away from where I live. In general, though, you would expect a great bar to be "a convenient staggering distance home" - no more than two miles distant, preferably under one.
10) Associations, memories, anecdotes. It's difficult to think of according a place great bar status on your first visit. You might recognise its potential for greatness, but you need a few more visits to confirm that initial appraisal. I guess I've never been a one-night stand kind of a guy. I always want to develop a relationship. I want some history with a bar before I think of ranking it among the greats.
Of course, there are a lot of other factors that may draw us to a favourite bar, but - for me - I don't think any of the others are make-or-break. These 10 points are the Formula for Happiness.
Then there the other potentially positive things, that I think of merely as...
1) Free bar snacks. You can't insist on this, but it does make such a positive impression. My local when I was doing my teacher training (more years ago than I now care to remember) was a country pub just outside Durham: they always used to hand around plates of cocktail sausages and baby roast potatoes on Sunday lunchtime, and I loved them for it. I've found a few places in the States that put out complimentary tortilla chips and chilli salsa on the bar. And my favourite hangout in Beijing, the Yacht Club, gives you a dish of (rather good) roasted peanuts every time you buy a drink. Trust me, prospective bar owners, you will never spend a better promotional dollar.
2) A beautiful barmaid (or two, or three). Again, one can't insist. I know it's horribly un-PC of me to point out that, in a service industry primarily targeted towards men, it is a huge advantage to have some attractive female staff - but there it is, such is the way of the world. Some idle flirting with a pretty barmaid can be a key part of the great bar experience. (And of course, it's so much safer than flirting with female customers, because you know it's never going to lead anywhere.)
3) A good juke-box. Much better than piped music; or - god forbid! - a DJ! I am quite happy to do without music in a bar altogether. But if they must have it, it should be: not too loud; chosen by the customers; and drawn from a generally accepted list of classics that have stood the test of time (not contemporary hits that we're hearing too much of already in the outside world; and not divisive genres like rap [pretty much everyone can enjoy a Johnny Cash song, for example; but rap, hip hop, techno and a few other styles split the world in two!]). The best juke-boxes of all, of course, are the antique ones that actually play 45rpm singles - just watching the mechanism at work is mesmerising entertainment (they used to have one of these in favourite Oxford bar, The Black Swan, back in the early '90s; but it was a freakish anachronism even then. I very much doubt if you can find one anywhere now.). If these wondrous machines no longer exist, then CD-based juke-boxes are to be preferred. MP3/MP4-based machines have unmanageably long playlists and dismal sound quality.
4) A good pool table. Although I love the game of pool, I do not view it as an essential part of the great bar. In fact, I like to think of favourite pool-playing haunts in a separate category: the presence of a good pool table will tend to distract me from drinking and conversation, and thus might arguably be seen as a factor that compromises a truly great bar. In practice, though, favourite bars and favourite pool-playing haunts have tended to coincide for me.
5) A good selection of single malts. This might not be of interest to everyone, but a fine whisky is one of my favourite special treats. And a really good selection is both a rarity and a sure sign of class in a bar.
6) Food. I go to bars to drink, not to eat. And food tends to slow up the process of getting drunk. And anyway, as I often say, beer is food. However, even I have to admit that it is often a welcome convenience to be able to get some decent grub in your boozer. And since almost all the bars I've ever been to in America (and an increasingly high proportion in the UK) do offer food, the quality (and price and appropriateness) of that food does become an important differentiating factor in choosing your favourites. I tend to worry, though, that if a place gets too much of a reputation for its food, it will start attracting the wrong sort of custom. [Strike 2 against The Tree. And I don't even think their food is very good; but it does have a reputation...]
7) A non-naff name. If everything else about a place is wonderful, you can grow to love it despite its name. But some names really do not help. As The Cowboy has already suggested - in reference to a Simpsons' episode where Moe unwisely jazzes up his tavern - bars whose name is a single letter of the alphabet (or a number) are a bad idea. As indeed are bars whose names sound like a character from The Matrix, or include the names of fruits or vegetables (OK, there's a place in Pimlico called The Orange Tree - I'll allow that), or the words 'slug' or 'firkin'. Outside of traditional English pub names (The Turk's Head, The Woodman's Arms) and traditional Irish/American bar names (the family name of the original owner, with a possessive 's appended), you should stick to very simple - non-silly, non-pretentious - names like Reef Bar, The Bookworm, Bell & Drum; or names based on your location, like The Riverside Inn, Nanjie, East Shore Jazz. Bars that call themselves things like Centro (Matrix - or Transformers? - character), Zeta (Matrix character, letter of Greek alphabet, bad Welsh actress), Q (Matrix character, letter of alphabet), or Block8 (silly, pretentious, Matrix macguffin, number) are never likely to win my respect after making such a poor first impression with their choice of name.
8) A Happy Hour. Again, not absolutely essential for me (I grew up as a bar-goer without them, since they are almost unknown in the UK); although they do of course appeal to my sense of thrift. I am just a little bit sceptical of the institution, since I don't need any additional encouragement to have a drink as soon as I finish work. Happy Hours are all too often an affectation of upmarket, would-be nightclubby city centre bars that are desperate to attract a bit of early evening custom. I'll generally try to avoid Happy Hours at bars that would be too expensive for me to drink in at their regular prices - it's a matter of principle. Moreover, in Beijing, instead of giving you a straightforward discount on every drink you buy, most places offer you a second drink free; quite apart from the fact that you might not want to consume an even number of drinks, neither customers nor wait staff are able to remember clearly what free drinks are owed to whom, and it just results in fights. Not very 'Happy' at all, in fact. However, it can warm the heart to find a really good bar that is serving drinks even cheaper than usual. And I particularly like a bar that will distinguish itself by instituting a Happy Hour that is longer, cheaper, or more creatively timed than anyone else's (The Cowboy and I were reminiscing the other day about the wonderful Hogan's, which used to have a weekday lunchtime Happy Hour while 'The Jerry Springer Show' was on TV. Inspired!).
And then there are the...
1) A TV. Sorry, Cowboy. I mostly prefer to watch major sporting events at home rather than in a crowded bar. And in a bar, I find the presence of a TV set to be rather anti-social. I know TVs are ubiquitous in American bars (and increasingly common in British ones), and I have often found them a welcome source of distraction when there's no-one around to talk to; but I'd be just as likely to want to watch the news or a talk show as a sports event. American sports leave me cold anyway, I'm afraid (apart from gridiron football; and even there, I'm scarcely a hardcore fan).
2) A cocktail menu. Sometimes, it's nice to have options.... but really, how often do you order a cocktail? That's right - NEVER. Any bartender worth his or her salt should be able to make up any of the standards for you anyway; or at least take direction on how to do so. If you're in a bar that highlights its cocktails, it is likely that it is expensive and full of wankers. You didn't notice it was called Morpheus or Y or Block8??
3) Live events. Music, comedy, whatever. I mean, I like this kind of thing, I really do. And it is possible for live entertainment to be a characteristic feature of a great bar. But more often I view places like this as an event venue rather than a boozer. Having said that, though, a number of my favourite watering-holes in Beijing are in fact music bars. I said at the outset it was difficult to lay down hard-and-fast rules.
4) A clean toilet. Now, it's nice if there is one. But remember what I said up the top about tolerating imperfections in those you love? Most of my favourite bars over the years have had pretty grotty toilets; a few of them have had toilets that were outright disgusting. We simply do not choose bars on the basis of their bathroom facilities.
The Definite No-No's
1) Bright lights. Bar lighting should always be subdued, intimate, shadowy - heck, gloomy is the word I'm looking for, it should be gloomy.
2) Any kind of 'theme'.
3) Anything swish, modern, airy, minimalist - or otherwise expensive - in the furniture and decorations.
4) Service by wait-staff only, rather than directly from the bar.
5) A door charge.
6) Naff dress for the staff.
7) Being located in a mall or an office building.
8) Being located on an upper floor of a mall or an office building (particularly if access is via a lift/elevator).
And, of course, the absence or antithesis of any of the good points I mentioned above.
So, there you have it: How to recognise a great bar when you see one. I can see this one provoking a bit of discussion....