Sunday, October 28, 2007

What makes a great bar?

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.


The Caveats

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...

Essential Elements

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...

Desirable extras

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.

And finally.....

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....


Anonymous said...

in the interest of getting around to pretending to sleep eventually tonight, I decided to break up my comments for this by breaking up the read (difficult though it is for me to stop mid-read).

It's just that, reading the first section on essentials has led me hopping around your archives re-reading old favorites that now I've probably spent way more time enjoying just this section than if I'd dryly sped-read through the whole blog.

and frankly, i'm happy to take my time and savor it -- like a good meal.

So, for your intro and Essentials section - bravo! I can't believe this is here for me to read and comment, first. Dude, you need an agent - you need to publish - you need a regular column in some magazine or paper... (or maybe you already have all of these?)

Or, you could even develop this into a nice little bar-book.

Anonymous said...

couldn't resist - i peaked - i skimmed - I had no idea so many bar names originated from the movie Matrix...

The British Cowboy said...

Just a quick comment as I am working...

"Theme" is, you are right, an absolute EVIL. There is that special sub genre in the US of the nation bar. Oh, it's a traditional British pub. NO IT FUCKING ISN'T. Calling it the Elephant and Castle and hanging oars from the ceiling does not a British boozer make!

The guiltiest in this regard is the "Irish pub." Plastic shamrocks and photos of the old sod are just tacky. That said, an Irish bar in the states, when not done as a theme, can provide the best environment for cantankerous bastards such as my self. Just don't ram it down my throat.

And also, as a word of advice, when in Boston plastic paddy pubs, when the Irish folk band asks for requests, asking for the Sash is not a good idea...

hearhear said...

hearhear tulsa,
I've been telling him that for so many years that I don't even bother anymore - about the agent that is. I hope he pays more attention to you. Mind you I only hear from him every couple of years (or is it the other way round? I forget) so the time soon stacks up.

cheers froog - bravo. I'd totally forgotten about this blog but was just clearing out my favorites and, naturally, got sidetracked here so haven't deleted very much. A good day to look in.

Froog said...

I was joking about The Matrix, silly! It's just that a lot of pretentious cocktail-lounge type places have names that sound like they might have been characters in The Matrix.

Actually, I am tempted to relent here slightly - I think Morpheus would actually be a pretty cool name for a bar; for a certain kind of bar, anyway; not a 'dive dive', but something a bit more hip-and-trendy. I will go to such places occasionally (as a tourist.... to sneer at them..... to try to meet women....).

Froog said...

Cowboy, I think in America it is perhaps harder to differentiate 'plastic Paddy' pubs from 'genuine Paddy' pubs. The tackiness you decry does seem to have become a standard expectation for defining the character of an Irish bar - even though you'd never see anything of the like back in the old country - and most of the time these places really are owned and/or staffed by Irish Americans (and indeed by recent Irish immigrants; I'm always struck by the huge numbers of Irish-born people I meet in these places).

Provided they keep their Guinness well, and pour it right, I don't give too much of a damn.

Froog said...

Oh, great - another one of my friends commenting anonymously! Why so secretive?! Couldn't you at least choose an alias that I would be able to decipher?? Is that you, Lizzie????

Anonymous said...

"and hanging oars from the ceiling does not a British boozer make!"

ha ha! I can visualise such places but have happily not frequently got stuck in them.

The British Cowboy said...


You know my favorite watering hole is an Irish bar, run by an ex-pat bogtrotter.

I am really saving my anguish for the corporate chains/neon Irish bars. I agree that in the Satan, you are most likely to find a decent local bar in the Irish bar contingent. And many of them don't pretend to be replicas of back home.

Froog said...

Cowboy, I'd be happy to find a 'replica' of a good, old-fashioned Irish bar (like Mulligan's in Dublin, which I have celebrated on the blog here) in the US or anywhere else.

I think the problem with most Irish places over there is that they conform to an Irish American - rather than a genuinely Irish - paradigm of what a Paddy bar should be..... hence all the sentimental, touristy garbage like shamrocks and leprechauns.

The more truly distinctive features of the Irish bars I like are things like a peat fire, a gnarly old local who hasn't washed the nicotine stains off his hands for 50-odd years, a brace of wet dogs, and a four-and-a-half minute pour for the Guinness. If you want a fucking shamrock you can go outside and pick one for yourself.

Froog said...

Follow-up for The Cowboy....

Only three people I can think of (outside of my extensive fan club here in Beijing, of course) have ever suggested, even half seriously, that I should write professionally. And I'm pretty sure "hearhear" isn't the other two.

You don't think it's Greaves, do you??

Anonymous said...

LOL... okay. all I can say is awed as I am by what you fondly call your verbal diarrhoea, I've come to take every word typed here as the gospel ;)

and yes, I can see a Morpheus bar in Beijing... I imagine something along the lines of Obi Wan.

And funny that you would want to pick up (er... I think you said "meet") women at a bar you wouldn't want to regularly hang out at...

p.s. TBC... we've been seeing a lot of you lately. What a pleasure.

Anonymous said...

IMHO: if they have to suggest it's a "sports bar" it's dead-in-the-water; I don't see this as a "theme" thing as many SBs have nothing else to prompt the "sports" soubriquet.

For me the No 1 is a savant barman who retains a mystery: will he be rude tonight or polite? Will he talk or remain distant?

Don't forget the bogs; they don't have to be clean - just remember The Bear - just characterful in themselves; too many are non-descript. After all, if you're drinking lager, you're going to be spending half the night in there so there should at least be something to look at/do/read/kick.

The British Cowboy said...

Well ty tulsa.

I tend, paradoxically, to contribute more the worse work gets. If I have time off, I will often spend it away from the computer.

And we are now 5 weeks from trial. So things are only going to get worse.

Anonymous said...

TBC-- Ah ha! You see, that was my theory... as the insanity increases at the office, the more I need a five second blog break to keep the sanity... thanks for the validation.

I feel yah on "5 weeks from trial" stage and wish you luck.

Froog said...

Oh yeah, I forgot about Obi-Wan. Naturally, my 'Matrix' joke was just a for-instance. Bars that name themselves after sci-fi film characters are in general a bad idea.

(Obviously this rules does not apply to the naming of blogs.)

Froog said...

Tulsa, yes, on the lowering of standards - you caught me out.

If desperate enough to meet women, one does have to compromise certain principles - to go to bars that one otherwise wouldn't (Obi-Wan, Centro), to attempt activities one is inept at (dancing, polite conversation), to pretend to forswear things that one truly loves ("What?! There's a football match on tonight? I had no idea!").

Anonymous said...

"Obi-Wan" that is a bad name for a bar!

"to attempt activities one is inept at (dancing"

Its worth a go, it seems many women like to dance.

Anonymous said...


(I am potentially about to comment a bit too seriously in response to your "meeting women" thread... forgive me for taking away the possible frivolity of the discussion - but I gotta say:)

but then, next weekend, after you have the woman, and the game is on, and you don't make plans to go out dancing, then she's disappointed (and wondering why someone who's not interested in the game would stay in to watch it on a Saturday night) and the following weekend, when you want to go out, she's already caught on and won't answer your calls.

What purpose does that serve... in the long run? I know sometimes it's not about the long run, but you've made it abundantly clear here and at the Flat that you're not into one-nighters.

Not that I never "go to bars that one otherwise wouldn't (Obi-Wan, Centro), to attempt activities one is inept at (dancing, polite conversation), to pretend to forswear things that one truly loves"... we all do these things occasionally, for work, for a friend, or for our amusement (you, know, like a tourist going to exotic and bizarre locations to watch beings in their natural habitats) but when I do those things, I certainly have no intention of meeting a guy with whom I'd want to spend any additional time.

Anonymous said...


do you like to dance?

Froog said...

I can't answer for FG, but I definitely cannot dance.

My usual line on this is that it is like my inability to swim. I know I've left it too late in life to learn now, and the innate handicaps to be overcome are too great. Frankly, I'd rather drown with dignity than make myself look stupid by vainly attempting something that I just know I am not able to do properly.

Anonymous said...

I'm not very good and don't feel the need to do it so much these days but the very few times I have danced recently have been enjoyable.

I was lucky as at a formative age, when I was rather awkward and self-conscious about the idea I was given some very very good advice.

"If you look like you are having fun when you are dancing the people around you will enjoy it and you will too".

It seems they were right and I have never looked back. Lets face it very few people look great on the dance floor but many people look like they are having a good time and their partners enjoy them and it all the more.

Most importantly, Froog, it is not a big deal. Just a wonderful pagan past-time.

Anonymous said...

Tulsa, thank you for asking.

Froog said...

Nice advice - but I don't think I'm that good an actor.

And then, of course, I've got the trick leg to worry about as well....

The British Cowboy said...

While I think of it, Froog, there is a reason that American bars are more likely to serve food than Brit pubs. It is a licensing requirement in many communities that they do. In Alexandria, for example, the requirement is, I believe, that a full meal be available at all times when alcohol is being served.

Froog said...

T,I admit I'm far more likely to meet a probable/possible 'soulmate' in The Bookworm or The Yacht Club or Huxley's, but.... it's not inconceivable that it might happen elsewhere, and you are - statistically - improving your chances just a little if you hang out somewhere where there are going to be lots of people of the opposite sex.

You tell yourself that they don't really like that kind of bar, don't go there that often, are just humouring friends or workmates. You tell yourself that they much prefer the kind of sleazy dives you love really...... or could learn to like them if you introduce their charms.

Of course, this is probably all self-delusion - but this is what your libido tells you. Your libido knows full well that they're must be shallow and tasteless and unintelligent to be in such a bar.... but it tries to fool you. Very cunning, your man the libido. You have to watch him like a hawk.

Anonymous said...

"Very cunning, your man the libido. You have to watch him like a hawk."

Oh good, no introductions is nesessary, it seems you know him ( Libido) after all!

Was a concerned having recently read of your friendship with his spanish cousin, Asexualismo.


Anonymous said...

How often do you order a cocktail?

every time I go out! i'm not pretentious I just don't like the taste of alcohol yet still want to enjoy its effects. Alcoholic chocolate bars if you will.

sorry had to make my point there!

Froog said...

Well, you're a girl, aren't you, "Anonymous"?

In fact, you're probably Glasgow Ali, once more lapsing into techno-incompetence.

"Don't like the taste of alcohol" indeed!!

Cocktails have their place. The place for cocktails is a cocktail bar.

A cocktail bar is not a bar bar. This was a post about bar bars. A bar bar does not need cocktails, much less a cocktail menu.

Anonymous said...

I agree with all your points, which set me thinking about the top 10 bars in Oxford. (I was intrigued by your nomination of the Black Swan - which I patronised extensively with The Bookseller throughout the summer of 96 whilst lodging in Crown St.)

Currently, the favoured bar for myself and Bookseller is the Black Horse on St Clements. A bizarre place, which is partly hotel (more or less opposite the Angel and Greyhound) and curiously hosts a half-price Happy Hour from 5-7. The choice of drinks is eclectic, with Kirin lager from Japan currently the favoured option (although the Guinness is always reliable). A friendly, itinerant (mostly Australian) staff, free peanuts and plenty of places to sit.

So here goes with the top 10...

1. Black Horse - see above
2. The Grapes - intimate atmosphere still vaguely redolent of spit and sawdust. Proper bar furniture.
3. The Star (on Cross St - hidden gem which does 2 quid a pint all day on the first Thursday of every night). Has not been renovated since c.1950
4. Oxford Blue (Marston St). See above. Still a 'working bar' and does great bacon sandwiches at lunchtime.
5. Black Swan (Crown St). You know it well.
6. Oxford Union (does that count? ticks most of the boxes apart from ambience and decent beer - although it has got better.)
7. Rose and Crown (Summertown). Cosy feel, decent beer, but in danger of getting overrun by wankers.
8. King of Prussia (Iffley Rd - RIP, burnt down last summer). Actually a dismal pub, but with fond memories of undergraduate days.
9. Half Moon (St Clements). The only pub where the landlord (Dennis - RIP) brought beer to my bedside when I was ill in York Place.
10 Lamb & Flag (St Giles). Excellent array of beer, good location and atmosphere, can get overcrowded.


The Bookseller said...

A vital ingredient in the eco-system of the bar is surely the SMALL POSSE OF LAGER-DRINKING BUILDERS.
These have three useful functions:
Firstly, they provide atmosphere for football matches, by singing, chanting (often surprisingly witty) obscenities, getting into the spirit by wearing their replica England shirts, and being amusingly inconsolable at their team's inevitable & clearly-predictable defeat.
Secondly, being big and scary-looking, they deter trouble from the scummier patrons, while being relatively benign themselves.
And thirdly they nevertheless provide a HINT OF TROUBLE which stops the bar becoming too popular, and especially deters the students who order seven complicated cocktails with stupid bits of fruit in them, then try to pay with a credit card, never realising how close they are to being glassed by a thirsty Bookseller who just wants a quick refill for his honest, normal pint...
Little Anthony may have a more robust digestion than me, but I'd be pretty wary of touching the free peanuts in the Horse after the PISSED OLD IRISHMAN IN THE CORNER has been dribbling his half of Guinness on them.
This useful character has a Scottish equivalent, who nurses whisky as his poison of choice & has the facial colouring and expression of Sir Alex Ferguson after he's lost 4-0 to Rotherham.

Froog said...

I'm not too keen on the "posse of lager-drinking builders", even if relatively "benign". They do some to have become more and more of an inevitability since we were forced to start watching most of our football in the pub - one of those things I don't miss about the UK!

I have much more time for "the old drunk in the corner", particularly if Irish or Scots.

Very nice to see you visiting these pages at last, my old friend. I hope it won't just be a one-off.

Anonymous said...

Wow. The Bookseller is for Real.

Froog said...

Or I could just be getting more devious in my creativity....

The British Cowboy said...

Holy crap. The Lamb and Shag has changed over time then. Last time I went there it was a despicable hell hole selling the most slop ridden beer you could have laid lips on. And it was renowned as one of the easiest places for underaged kids to get a drink, which does not make a good bar.

Froog said...

I don't remember L & S ever being a hotbed of underage drinkers (that does make for a good bar if you're an underage drinker). But then, I never went there very much anyway. City centre pubs mostly a bit crap, a bit too expensive. And L & S is too much of a St John's pub.... not my favourite college.

The British Cowboy said...

Served underage people is good when you are underage. When you are (significantly) overage, it is a bad thing, unless, of course, you are a Catholic priest or Michael Jackson.

That's generally another sign of a bad bar - too many young people. Even if they are of age. Except of course for cute younger women, if they are insane enough to fall for me.

The Bookseller said...

I must agree with the Cowboy- maybe it's just advancing years, but I do prefer these days to see a decent quorum of older drinkers (NOT however the sort who are to cheap to go to a proper restaurant, so go to the pub for a meal, expecting tablecloths, napkins etc).
Dogs are also a fine addition to a bar- I have fond memories of the Temple Bar which had 6 collies in permanent residence, all of them trained to shepherd beermats. Funnily enough, the pub was festooned with signs reading 'No Dogs'...
These noble beasts scare away families with children, and if I can find the time, I will train our dog to climb up onto the tables of the gastro-pubbers & shit over their 'restaurant-style' food. This should not be too difficult, as he manages to shit everywhere else (possibly on account of the hot chili sauce in his diet).

Froog said...

Bookseller, you leave us in the dark as to whether the Lamb is still a hotbed of underage drinkers - or indeed a hotbed of young-but-legal tottie for The Cowboy to feed his fantasies on.

I suppose you simply don't notice such things any more since you are happily ball-and-chained?

I am developing a theory about the optimum age of drinkers in a bar. I suspect that the tolerable lower limit for the median age is about 10 years younger than me; while the ideal is probably about 4 or 5 years older.

Mind you, that preference probably hasn't changed that much over the years (for bars which I find myself in alone, rather than ones where I have gone to hang out with friends of similar age to myself): I've always preferred to be surrounded by people in their 30s and 40s (women not excluded!)..... and with a few people around substantially older than that. Character, that's the thing.

Froog said...

And by the way, Bookseller, I hope you are kidding about poisoning your dog with chilli sauce. If your Good Lady found out, I'm sure she wouldn't hesitate to hand you over to the stormtroopers from the Canine Defence League for a sound thrashing.

The Bookseller said...

It was just retribution for the beast's greed- I enlivened a rather boring fish pie with the chili, and it hoovered up the leftovers, never thinking of the effect it might have on its canine digestive system. I rectified the problem by feeding it oatcakes & egg yolks (very binding...). It is not necessary for the Bookseller's Wife to know any of this...
The L&F seems not to be the schoolies' choice of drinking venue these days- median age about 35 on most nights. For jailbait, try Japanese Will's haunts- usually called 'Bar Rip-off' or similar, which tick all the boxes in your Bad Bar section.
You do realise. don't you, that at your age the pissed 'character' in the corner is now your contemporary?

Froog said...

Bastard! Mrs Bookseller might learn of many of your previously unsuspected peccadilloes if you carry on in that vein! "Your age", for heaven's sake!! I'm not that much older than you; we are both in the same zone now, for all practical purposes. I hope you haven't become the smelly, barely comprehensible drunk in the corner....

Any chance we can entice you to look at some of the more contemporary postings? I put up a vintage Pogues video this morning.

anthony said...

The Bookseller is not kidding about feeding his dog with chilli sauce. At least it makes a change from poisoning the hamster with tabasco in his last house. I can't remember whether or not the threat to play 'hamster cricket' was ever carried out.

I should also point out that the dog had the last laugh by developing diarrhoea in his living room.

Froog said...

You are both disgusting. This blog in no way endorses animal-torturing.

I'm siding with the dog. Crapping all over The Bookseller's living room is the way to go.

He never lets me forget the one-and-only time I vomited on his carpet (bad food rather than drink-related, and a very small dribble).

Anonymous said...

Fuck me! (expostulation not imprecation...)

Does the RSPCA know that The Bookseller has a dog?!

Anonymous said...

A very good description of what makes a good bar. But for someone who has obviously frequented a number of establishments, I am surprised that you missed what may be the most obvious and important factor........ a good bartender.

Froog said...

You were skimming, Anonymous. It was point No. 3.

Tih said...

Commenting on this one rather late, but had to put in a word on what makes a good bar for those of us who do not like beer. Sorry, have tried for a number of years, but still do not like it.

So, for those of us who do not like beer, a good bar should have some choice of alcoholic beverage which should at a minimum include a good G&T, not the Balkan’s kind, mind you, which is one half gin and one half tonic (flat may I add). The best would be to have a cocktail list (without the pretentious crowd that usually frequent cocktail bars, fully agree on that one) which does not have to be exhaustive, but c’mon, how difficult is to make a bloody mary or a mojito?

Also, from the point of view of a female bar frequenter, I would just like to point out one fact of bar life: it is impossible to sit in a bar by yourself, quietly and happily reading a book or a magazine, if you are female, under 80 (years old) and not impossibly ugly. It just does not happen. The second you set yourself up, either the waiter would come to ask how old you were, how to get a visa to your home country or the most annoying and already drunk customer will try to chat you up (he will think that is what is doing, while in reality he is talking in incomprehensibly slurred gibberish while spitting all over your much needed G&T).

My idea of going to a bar is to meet new people and have interesting conversations, but also, just once in a while, I would like to have my G&T by myself. And this is possible in a very few bars.

Froog said...

TIH, I hadn't realised you were a lady. My apologies for missing this comment when you first left it. Sometimes the Blogger comment-notification gets a little screwy.

Please also accept my apologies on behalf of men in general. I know we can be a bit of a pain when we get into sexual predator mode.

It is inevitably one of the problems of bars that there tend to be a lot of drunks in them. And also, perhaps, that there tend to be a lot of bores in them. (I don't necessarily equate the two. I've said on here a number of times that I think drink tends to highlight dominant personality traits - so, it makes some people loud, bullying, boastful, or boring; it makes others - like myself - morbid, introspective, poetical.)

Being pestered by a bore (whether drunk or not) is just as much a hazard for us guys - although I can see that it may be particularly intrusive and objectionable for a girl to receive such unwelcome attention, especially if she's being hit on. I do wish people would be more considerate, more observant. If I'm sitting here quietly with my nose in a book, looking like I'm minding my own business - then I probably am minding my own business, and so should you; I don't want to be disturbed, thank you.

However, I find that you do also meet quite a lot of interesting people in bars.

By the way, 50/50 gin & tonic sounds pretty good to me (although, obviously, the lack of bubbles in the tonic water is a problem!). Well.... I suppose 70/30 is about the ideal!!

Froog said...

I realised there was one serious omission from this rundown - the importance of having a unitary bar space rather than divided, multiple, 'split personality' bars. I have now rectified that oversight.

And GOSH, this is the 50th comment here. I hope there'll yet be some more.

crazy chris said...

I thought of something perhaps a little useful: a list of bars throughout the world that meet your criteria, which are largely mine as well.

The Commune
Sam Duk So Bong Soe, Daegu ROKorea

The Allegre
San Pedro la Laguna Guatemala

Froog said...

That's not really a very long list for such a well-travelled guy. You've only found two really good bars in all this time?

Is The Commune the place you used to call 'The Blackout Bar'??

crazy chris said...

Well, as per your criteria, a good bar is hard to find. A better bar is hard to remember! There are a few other bars I might add to the list, but as I haven',t been to them in a while or would occasionally prefer them stay undiscovered gems I have left them off the list.

The B'lackout definately doesnt make the list as its only appeal was the fact that is was open later than most.

A possible addition is a C,hicago bar that has few regulars cheap drinks and a great atmosphere: Tuman's Alcohol Abuse Center on Chicago Ave in Chicago. Last time I was there (6 or 7years ago) a pint of proper-ish Guiness was 2.75 US - pretty cheap, hence the name abuse center.

John Greaves said...

John Greaves says in terms of great bars there is no finer judge than a Greaves for it is a recorded fact, and a cemetery reality, that the discovery and adoption of great bars is my families only claim to fame and a shortened life from alcohol abuse.
Start with basic number one, a bar is just a bar, and I know this from my exile in the colonies, a Pub is what you are actually seeking and depsite the export of several pubs, some actually brick for brick (The British Bankers Club in San Jose> might have the wrong San, is actually an example) there is something once moved from the location, removed from the customers, the spirit, forgive the pun, goes out of the place. so, the bestbar is actually a defined geographical space, the UK including Ireland, and whilst I acknowledge superb camaraderie, serivce, social and political dialogue, arguments on religion, and free snacks in many other places on Earth the pub for me is still the template, still the quintessential place we should mark scores from in terms of a bar.
My local bar here in Chicago, like so many in USA, is a dirty, unmodernised 'tavern' that is dimly lit, dimly populated and is simply a watering hole, the best bar in the area is a mega bar with some great characters and food but no atmosphere, clean, shiny, good value drinks etc. We even have an imported pub two miles away run by a Brit, it is dreadful, and having imported all of the accoutrements still could not import the ambience. So my pub of choice in UK........Shakespeare in Durham City,The Grapes in Bradford on Avon, The three Magpies at LHR (Actually a dreadful place but the company you get is superb, the whole world is in there every night)and the one acroos from the Marriott in Maida Vale whose name escapes me due to having no need to reemeber the name, only the location. I will not try and create a definitive list, rather I will simply put down here the five, yes, only five, basic content that makes the pub that makes a list, should we ever get to one.
1. The Landlord / Landlady / Staff. Humor, opinionated, frank, listening mode, eccentric (crazy?)
2. The decor. warm, old, weathered, but clean, simple with exotic insertions, amusing period pieces and even itmes of local or personal historical value that stimulate conversation
3. Conversation. dialogue between clients, drinkers, staff, wags, humorists, politicos, religion, saving the world, saving Private Ryan (Cinema buffs), good juke box played reverently in gaps between dialogue generally to open a further string of dialogue and the clientele must be of both genders.
4. Clean and functional toilets.
5. some form of traditional food, not Thai or weird off piste menus, but sandwiches made with Branston Pickle and Piccallilli, with chips, and crisps of just a few falvors, and some nuts, possible for free and snacks on quiz night while you raise money for a local charity.

That's all there is to it, isn't it?

Froog said...

Good of you to drop in, Mr G.

I see that we are in accord on most things - although on the matter of toilets, while I've never encountered a lack of basic functionality anywhere, I really do think cleanliness plays no part in Great-Barness.

Anonymous said...

Think I agree with every one of your points there! It kills me how wrong Chinese bars get it - particularly #4 in your list of No-No's. Why? WHY?

Froog said...

Glad we enticed you into our shadowy back room here at last, Mike.

I find, alas, that foreign-run bars in Beijing usually get it almost as catastrophically wrong as the Chinese-run ones do. Perhaps it's an attempt to appeal to more Chinese clientele?

In fact, bars back in the old home country are more and more often getting many of these things wrong nowadays. I HATE the pale wood and big windows and over-sophisticated menus of the new wine bar/gastropub model.

This is a nostalgic ideal of a bar (mainly derived from the classic British pubs I remember from my earliest drinking days in the '70s and early '80s). It's something that is, I fear, gradually becoming obsolete.