Saturday, February 4, 2012
A Good Bar is Hard to Find
Since I have moved out to New Jersey, my life has changed dramatically. I eat healthier, walk more, and spend very little time in bars. The first two developments are welcome, the last, I must admit, makes me a little sad. Some of the best times of my life have been in bars, and I have yet to find an institution better for washing the grime and frustrations of the working week off of my back. Granted, my spending less times in bars is the result of living with my wife, but recently, when I stopped into a corner Irish pub for a pint with a work chum after the school day was done, I forgot how much I loved life behind those swingin' doors, as the song goes. Bars have often been a friendly port of call when traveling in unfamiliar places. Last year, during a trip to New Haven, I had some wonderful conversations with the patrons at a storied dive. When I first moved to Michigan, I quickly established some homes away from home that made my life bearable. On the other hand, the lack of a good bar is a real drag on my quality of life. Back when I lived in Texas, my friends and I went out for drinks with friends quite often, but never enjoyed the establishments where we socialized, which were either over-priced, lame, full of students, or all three. (Of course, a good bar opened there a month after I left.) So what makes a good bar? Here are some criteria that I have come up with after years of experience.
A good bar is a place where you want to settle in and spend some time. The first bar that I ever truly embraced was the Dubliner, in downtown Omaha. It's a basement Irish pub with an extra whiff of dank that always made me feel like I was spending time in a warm, jovial cave. I could spend hours down there, and never feel that any time had passed. For me, that is the test of a homey bar. Does last call come as a surprise since you haven't been looking at the clock? Is so, you've found your place.
Decor is a crucial element in setting the atmosphere. In my experience, wood-panelled walls are the sign of a quality establishment, since it means it's a joint that still draws in plenty of paying customers without updating the interior since at least the 1970's. Sometimes decor can keep a wretched bar from being unbearable. My local in Texas was usually full of obnoxious students, had nothing better than Rolling Rock on tap, and bartenders who didn't know how to mix Manhattans. However, it had some of the most unintentionally hilarious and endlessly fascinating wall hangings of any bar I've known. Back in the 80s and 90s, it had also been a music venue, and pictures of the bands and artists desperate enough to play in a last-chance shit-hole town stuck in the back woods of East Texas were now immortalized by the framed black and white promotional pictures hanging on the wall. Because of the time and place of these photos, there were more bad mullets and silly mustaches than you'd see at a tractor pull. Another dive I frequented in Chicago left much to be desired, but I was always entranced by the giant clock above the bar, which had the face of former mayor Richard J. Daley painted on it.
Quality Beers on Tap
There are some bars that I love that fail this test, but they must have a musty, homey character of the highest quality, like Jimmy's in Chicago. This place was so dark (before its later remodeling) that I swear I could never see the ceiling. Unless a bar can reach that high standard of atmosphere, it must serve something on tap surpassing the standard Bud, Miller, and Coors. Life is too short to spend it drinking the watered-down swill peddled by the megabrewers. My local in Grand Rapids won my heart from the first, since it had twelve shiny taps dispensing micro-brewed and imported goodness.
A rare bar without good beer can pass this test by having exceedingly shitty beers on tap, if the bar is divey enough. For example, I once spent a few evenings in a place called The Brass Rail (a plus) whose bathrooms smelled so awful that just opening the door to them gave the entire establishment a stench of urinal cakes (another plus), and contained an antiquated jukebox with 45s instead of CDs (huge plus) that allowed me to spin tunes like "Kentucky Rain" and "King of the Road" for a quarter (mega-plus!). This place had Miller High Life and Pabst Blue Ribbon on tap (before it was a hipster beer), and a cooler that dispensed forty-ounce bottles of Mickey's Malt Liquor to the neighborhood ragamuffins. In the context, these deficiencies of beer quality added to The Brass Rail's priceless atmosphere, rather than making it uninhabitable.
Understanding and Competent Staff
Establishing a relationship with bartenders and bar maids is a skill that every seasoned drinker knows well. After I moved to Michigan I spent a lot of time at a bar where I hated the atmosphere but liked to go because the staff were so good to me. Every third drink was free, and there were always interesting conversations to be had. At my local, one of the bartenders became legendary among my friends for his ability to keep all of his orders in his head, and to get us our bubbly pints faster than you could say Jack Robinson, even at the height of happy hour mania. I also tend to like bar staff who take the piss. For instance, at a place that I liked in Chicago, one waitress called me a "nancy boy" for ordering my whiskey on the rocks, rather than straight up. Rather than being offended, I was honored to be served by someone who cared.
On the other hand, shitty service can ruin a night out. Whenever one of my friends gets a pint with half an inch of beer missing off of the top, he calls it a "Hamilton's pour," in (dis)honor of a poorly staffed pub bearing the name. Some bar staff seem to think that their good looks, rather than responsiveness, ought to earn them tips. One such waitress at the otherwise wonderful Dubliner had my friend Dave and I ready to put our table on fire if it meant drawing our waitress from flirting with an admiring table of frat boys. If you belly up to a bar and ask for any kind of cocktail more sophisticated than vodka and cranberry juice and are met with a slack-jawed look of incomprehension, or they put grenadine in your Manhattan, slowly back away and never darken that establishment's door ever again.
If you're gonna spend a lot of time in a place, it has to be spent with people you actually want to be around. This was always a problem in grad school, because seemingly promising establishments would suddenly get overrun by hordes of ass pants sporting bleached blondes and spiky-haired, thick-necked bully boys wearing white baseball caps from the local undergraduate population. I tend to like bars full of serious drinkers, the type of joints that a friend of mine calls "alkie bars." Their patrons typically go the bar as a place of meditation and contemplation, and since they've got so much swirling around in their heads, make for good company. My favorite bars are the places where I've had interesting conversations with complete strangers.
A bar does not necessarily need food, but it doesn't hurt. After all, you don't want to have to actually leave and go somewhere else to eat, do you? Bars with run of the mill food are a dime a dozen, the sign of a bar with good food is that they have unique items on their menu. For instance, my fave bar in Michigan had an eponymous sandwich, "The Logan" on the menu, which vanquished many a hardy punter. They also served free pizza on Sunday (along with $4.75 pitchers of PBR), a true embarrassment of riches. Failing such unique attributes, quality burgers and free popcorn are always good signs.
Of course, finding the right bar, like finding the right life partner, is not a matter of constructing a checklist. There has to be an extra-special bond that surpasses articulation between you and the bar. I've been in many bars in all kinds of places in my time, but a precious few conform to this standard. In my memory, they are like old friends, and they bring me great joy when I get to visit them after years apart. Hopefully I will find one again before my time is up.