On the “Perfect” American Bar


Andrew Stuttaford at National Review noted this weekend the passing of one of the classic bars in Manhattan, the former speakeasy Bill’s Gay Nineties Restaurant and Piano Bar. (That’s Speakeasy as in, Large Men Will Break Your Legs If You Work For The Cops, not Speakeasy as in, Dude, You Get To Go All Maxwell Smart On The Phonebooth In Back Of The Hotdog Shop!) In so doing, he makes mention of a great essay by George Orwell in which he describes what is, for Orwell, the perfect English Pub. George Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, kiddies. They are two books you used to have to read, but usually don’t any more because, well, they don’t want you to read them anymore.

The Moon Under Water, the pub Orwell describes, is a fantasy, simply Orwell’s description of what a Pub should be, or ought to have been in wartime England. It is a lovely piece of writing, and while it would likely not be (as Andrew suggests) the perfect American bar, there is much here to chew on. I’m going to highlight a few of the elements that Orwell imagined in his perfect pub that I think ought to be universal, and a few that perhaps don’t work across time or ocean.
Also, it’s a chance to quote Orwell and generally class up the writing around here a bit.

My favourite public-house, the Moon Under Water, is only two minutes from a bus stop, but it is on a side-street, and drunks and rowdies never seem to find their way there, even on Saturday nights.

He opens by noting that the Moon is easy to get to, but is neither hip nor happening. Assholes need not apply. I think you can certainly agree that a great bar should be generally free of rowdy assholes. Unless you are a rowdy asshole, of course. In such case we can take comfort in the likelihood that you don’t read this blog, and the near certainty you don’t read Orwell….

In the Moon Under Water it is always quiet enough to talk. The house possesses neither a radio nor a piano, and even on Christmas Eve and such occasions the singing that happens is of a decorous kind.

Mega-Dittos, Rush, er, George. Nightclubs should have loud music. Pickup joints in general should have deafening music. There is no reason in places like that to risk your personality taking away from whatever attractiveness alcohol has bequeathed you. There will be time enough in the morning to discover what a crashing bore you’ve hooked up with, right? But a good bar should make socialization easy. Either with friends, or with complete strangers. If you cannot solve the Problems of the World with a drinking companion known five years or five minutes in a bar, it is simply not a great bar.
In America today, by the way, this means no TVanywhere in the bar. Nothing sucks the life out of conversation faster than the flickering idiot box. Sports bars need TVs, but beyond that, keep one in the back and wheel it out for people to listen to in the event we declare war, or Elvis returns.

They are particular about their drinking vessels at the Moon Under Water, and never, for example, make the mistake of serving a pint of beer in a handleless glass. Apart from glass and pewter mugs, they have some of those pleasant strawberry-pink china ones which are now seldom seen in London. China mugs went out about 30 years ago, because most people like their drink to be transparent, but in my opinion beer tastes better out of china.

First, I did not know this about china and beer. I intend to try it and see. Anyone else in America use china? Any bars?
This and other comments in the piece show that an English pub, at least of Orwell’s day, was about beer. Here, cocktails are much more the focus, whether you mean the extravagant concoctions of the discerning booze nerd, or the sea of Jack and Cokes and Kangaroo Cocktails in more mainstream joints. And even for customers who don’t actively notice it, drinking vessels matter. The size, heft, and quality of glasses lend more to the quality of the drinking experience than most customers, or bar owners for that matter, realize.
And care of those vessels matters too, though Orwell neglects to mention it. A dirty, water-spotted glass puts me off almost instantly. And you best have built up a veritable sea of good times with me in the past if you want me to ever darken your door again should my glass, or those of any of my party, sports even a trace of lipstick.

Orwell speaks of the Moon’s garden, a family friendly environment.

Many as are the virtues of the Moon Under Water, I think that the garden is its best feature, because it allows whole families to go there instead of Mum having to stay at home and mind the baby while Dad goes out alone.

He is more open to the presence of children, at least on the periphery, than I am, or think Americans in general are with our bars. But his main thrust here is that wives drink with their husbands in his mythical perfect pub. I also think this is a huge deal. A bar whose customer base is too much one sex or the other is dreary for every day drinking. Yes, a boys’ or girls’ club is refreshing from time to time, and frankly, we need more of them in these politically correct times. But a really good general purpose bar ought to mirror one’s community and civilization. Further, a great bar should have a solid leavening of couples in its crowd at all times. And not just dates and hookups in progress, but husbands and wives out meeting other husbands and wives. Such atmosphere is healthy and robust, and offers all involved a richer, fuller evening out.

Not all of his suggestions, though are that great, at least to me.

The barmaids know most of their customers by name, and take a personal interest in everyone. They are all middle-aged women—two of them have their hair dyed in quite surprising shades—and they call everyone ‘dear,’ irrespective of age or sex. (‘Dear,’ not ‘Ducky’: pubs where the barmaid calls you ‘ducky’ always have a disagreeable raffish atmosphere.)

Some of this is awesome. Regulars expect and deserve to be known and recognized as such, and newcomers likewise deserve to be taken interest in. But I am not a fan of the motherly or fatherly aura in my bartenders or servers. Likewise, I’m not advocating the whole “breastaurant” concept for this either. But if given my druthers, I’d rather the bartenders and servers be attractive, and perhaps just a bit younger than the clientele… so long as they don’t act like it.

The grained woodwork, the ornamental mirrors behind the bar, the cast-iron fireplaces, the florid ceiling stained dark yellow by tobacco-smoke, the stuffed bull’s head over the mantelpiece — everything has the solid, comfortable ugliness of the nineteenth century.

Yes, I really like a good bar that has a well-maintained but lived-in feel. And true, nothing makes a space feel more “lived-in” than yellow nicotine stains. But I do not personally like the smell of cigarettes; not when they are being smoked, and especially not when they were smoked 18 years earlier. That said, the perfect bar can allow cigarette smoking. It just won’t be my hangout. Bars should absolutely be allowed to allow smoking. As a business decision, most of them should not. But that should be their choice. A perfect bar for the smoker is one that allows smoking, and non-smokers should just go elsewhere. And vice-versa.
A great bar is filled with happy people, and smokers who can’t are not, and non-smokers who essentially must are not either.

There is more, and the piece is well-worth reading just for the atmosphere it evokes. It is nice to see that Orwell could paint a luxurious fantasy idyll just as well as he could a hideous, plausible nightmare. What else do you think a perfect bar should boast?

About the author

Doug

I am 48 years old, married with two young daughters. My interests are tennis, reading, computers, politics, and of course cocktails. I run a murder mystery party business that caters to both corporate and private events, Killing Time, murder consultants.

7 Comments

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  • Spot on. Two of my biggest bar pet peeves: loud music and TVs. I don’t mind a little light background music, but when I have to scream to the person next to me just to be heard over “Sweet Home Alabama” or anything by Journey, it drives me insane and ruins the evening. There’s the endless cycle where someone turns the music up to be heard over the chatter of patrons, so everyone talks louder, causing the music to be turned up again, and so on. If you want to listen to music, do it at home. The rest of us are trying to have a conversation. High decibels are for clubs, not bars.

    Secondly, let’s calm down with the multiple tv setup in bars. I know flat panels are cheap and easier to install, but that doesn’t mean we need 10 of them in every bar (sports bars excluded). I did a blog post on this very topic recently, and it ties in well with the loud music… why can’t you just let customers have a decent conversation?

    That said, my idea watering hole is generally dimly lit, cozy, and constructed mainly of dark wood or brick. I think I’d enjoy Orwell’s pub, and I’m also intrigued with drinking beer from china mugs.

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  • In theory I agree with you that the decision to allow (or not) smoking in bars should be up to the bar owners. In theory you’d have a mix of bars that did and did not allow smoking, and patrons would vote with their feet as to which one they preferred. However, this model was tried, and somehow we ended up in an equilibrium where every single bar allowed smoking. Granted, some bars were smokier than others so it’s not as though you had NO choice, but nevertheless a potential bar patron who wanted a smoke-free environment had only the option of staying home.

    So whereas ideologically I’m sympathetic, this policy failed in real-world implementation. On another note, I’m not sure I can even imagine what a “strawberry-pink china” beer mug would look like.

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  • dbeach:
    In theory I agree with you that the decision to allow (or not) smoking in bars should be up to the bar owners. In theory you’d have a mix of bars that did and did not allow smoking, and patrons would vote with their feet as to which one they preferred. However, this model was tried, and somehow we ended up in an equilibrium where every single bar allowed smoking.

    So whereas ideologically I’m sympathetic, this policy failed in real-world implementation. On another note, I’m not sure I can even imagine what a “strawberry-pink china” beer mug would look like.

    It did not work back when >65% of the population smoked, and smoking was not viewed the way it is today, as second cousin to open child molestation.
    Society today would not tolerate smoking, if allowed, in most establishments. You would rapidly segregate into smoking-friendly and mainstream places.
    Things were already going this way before the government chose to grandstand on the issue. If you doubt that, examine the hotel industry today. Smoking is still allowed legally in hotel rooms in most states, but many chains have banned smoking as a whole, and make that a big part of their marketing. My wife and I stay only in non-smoking hotels, not just non-smoking rooms, and there are plenty like us.

    If the government insists on keeping its hands around our throats, er, finger on the pulse of the situation, just ban non-smoking sections. They are, after all, fictions. You smell plenty of smoke in non-smoking sections.

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  • Doug,

    I concede there may have been some element of path dependence to explain the 100% penetration of smoking in bars. Probably, now, if the smoking ban were repealed, not all bars would allow it. But the argument that, in 2002, bars were on the cusp of banning smoking on their own strikes me as implausible. At the time, fewer than 15% of adults were smokers, and nevertheless, at least where I lived in Iowa City (just before the smoking ban went into effect in Iowa), every single bar in town allowed smoking. You’d think if non-smoking bars were about to become a trend there would have been at least one (out of the 40 or so bars in town).

    Again, I have mixed feelings about the law. I disagree with it in principle, but I really like not having to take my clothes to the dry cleaner every time I go to a bar.

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  • Orwell and your opinions match up with mine quite well. A few additional things the ideal bar needs, which also generally holds true for coffee shops as well:

    Comfy chairs. While there should definitely be a bar, and possibly even a section of the bar that doesn’t have chairs, the rest of the establishment should be couches and lazy boys clustered around coffee tables and end tables. Ottomans should be present for either one’s feet or to work as additional seating if needed. Padded booths are also acceptable.

    Muliple rooms/levels. Cuts down on noise from competing conversations. Allows for some intimacy for groups of people.

    Background music should be present and should be low enough in volume to only be heard when conversation lapses. No background noise can be just as oppresive as too much.

    Free wi-fi for those that just want to drink alone.

    Having a store next door that sells the same spirits as are behind the bar, so that you can taste test before buying.

    As for smoking. Having an outdoor area works pretty well as there is enough ventilation to keep smoke from getting too heavy, well at least during the summer in northern climates. Actually, if you had a separate smoking room, and the ventilation is done right, not only would the smoke not be too bad in the room itself, but would not affect the rest of the establishment either.

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