From Behind the Bar: On Crappy Bars

From Behind the Bar

Tales from our resident bartender.


[Photograph: Jessica Leibowitz]

What I'm Drinking: El Buho Mezcal (rocks, with a splash of lime juice and dash of sugar)

Good bars are good and bad bars are bad, and it is an unfortunate fact of life that the world will always be populated with more of the bad ones. The characteristics that define a good bar include care, craft, community, ambiance, and service, all of which require that someone in the organization cares enough about the place to put in the work to make it run the way it should. All of these take constant attention that many places simply can't (or won't) maintain.

To be clear, when I say 'bad bar,' I don't mean 'a bar that I don't like'. There are millions of joints in the world, and hundreds of millions of people who frequent them. I am only me, and I know that every bar was not designed to cater to my specific preferences. If I don't watch sports, I probably won't like a sports bar. If I didn't drink beer, I probably wouldn't be impressed by the options at the corner pub. I have walked into many a bar knowing that it was successful in its intentions while also knowing that I was not its target audience.

Bars that are actually bad are ones that do nothing right, or ones that fail spectacularly at the list of qualities that make a bar good. I have been in dive bars that are so disgusting that they cross the boundary between dirty and unhygienic. I have been in cocktail lounges with service so horrendous that I regret having walked through the door in the first place. Many joints I've seen have been so mediocre that one wonders why anyone bothers to belly up to the bar in the first place.

I've written at length about good bars, but have lately been thinking about the qualities that make one bad. A few common problems rear their ugly heads:

Poor Service: Anyone who has read this column knows that I believe hospitality is the most important part of what a bar has to offer. That said, hospitality is delivered by people, and people sometimes have bad days, so I approach every bad service experience I have knowing that the person in front of me may have just lost their beloved cat. Some places, though, seem to celebrate the fact that you will always be treated poorly at their establishment. Many bars have bartenders that are famous for being rude, nasty, inattentive, or even violent. Fancy cocktail bars allow their staffs to look down on people who order the "wrong" bourbon. Surly, rude, or indifferent bartenders can kill what would otherwise be a perfectly fine joint.

Poor Atmosphere: The lights are too bright. My table is dirty. No one is telling the man screaming obscenities to his buddy to take it outside. No one has noticed that the music stopped ten minutes ago, and we're all drinking our beers in silence. I can forgive a messy joint if it's Friday and the place is packed, but getting the atmosphere wrong on a consistent basis means that the staff and the ownership just don't care.

Poor Execution: I don't walk in to most bars and expect a decent cocktail, but I do walk in expecting something. The worst of the bad bars are those that are clearly there because the owners heard that selling booze makes money, and nothing is required aside from opening the doors and cracking a beer from time to time. As a bartender, this is the sin that offends me the most, the sin of ignorant opportunism.

While I yearn for the day that I can walk in to any bar in the country and get a decent Old Fashioned, I know that day is not today. Short of that, I'll take each place I enter for what it's worth, and hope that it has some quality that redeems it. Many don't, which makes me appreciate the places I love all the more.

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