As it is with manners, if you notice a bar is good, it probably isn’t. (I hope we were all sober while reading that sentence, apologies to those not). If a bar draws attention to itself and how cool it is, if a bar advertises its status too loudly, it is immediately less of a bar. Another way to say it is this: A good bar is made, not born. There are many poser bars out there. But remember (bless their swizzle sticks and fruit slices) – they are bars too, just not a thirsty man’s bar. A good bar grows into itself, it becomes good over the course of time, endless drinks, arbitrary fights and loud peace-making.
Some of the factors that create the gap between an ordinary bar and a classic are quantifiable, others not. Still, there are a number of checks to make to see if your bar is good. In the interests of finding ourselves in the right kind of bar over the festive season (what better time?), we’ll run through a few of them.
Nobody should ever have been invited into a good bar but a few patrons should have been asked to leave. What self-respecting bar has never had to draw the line between bravura and bonehead behaviour? If the bar you frequent has never attracted that unsophisticated drinker, the lout, you are likely to find that the establishment is diluting the drinks.
Which brings me to the second check. Bars cannot screen for the lout at the door, a bar with too much of a dress code is a danger sign. Looking at the dude’s threads is not going to tell you much. There are many hidden louts in the average bar evening, lurking under D&G and fancy haircuts, time bombs waiting for the right combination of liquor or women or comments or all of the above. A good bar will have the right gentleman (often the barman) to show the lout to the door, sometimes with a kindly boot to the derriere.
The key (besides the right clientele, fine drinkers like you and I) to a good bar is the right barman or men. A good barwoman (still usually referred to as a barlady – bars are a not known for PC language) is rare in our culture, but can exist – not to be confused with waitresses, which we have a marvellous cadre of. A good barman should be friendly but reserved, ready to talk but never a conversation hog. He needs to be an astute reader of body language. A slight nod in his general direction should be all he needs to understand that you’ll have another. He should have the ability to run a tab accurately when all about him are losing their heads. The good barman is your rational mind, your conscience and your accountant, but never your buddy.
Your buddy is the guy next to you, either you brought him along or, in a good bar, you’ll find him next to you pretty easily. He usually reveals himself when the time is right, someone to pass pearls of wisdom to or just grunt at. The key is the right time, a buddy should not appear before you are ready or when you don’t want one. In a good bar you should be able to count on this psychic instinct being casually shared by an above-average number of the punters.
It goes without saying that a good bar has a good selection of booze. Not only should the bottles on display suggest plenitude and intellectual stimulation (what cocktail could I dream up tonight?), but the barman should also be unfazed by your obscure drink requests. At best he should know them, or at least know when your order was inebriated enough for him safely to give you a Long Island Iced Tea. Beer is the litmus test. A bar should never, never have only the usual beers. Imports and many on tap is the bare minimum, a few brews dreamed up by those geniuses of beer, the monks, is a plus.
This starter list should help prevent disaster. Remember one last tip: A good bar is always darker than the outside world. It’s not dull reality, is it?
Sidebar – Some real bars near you
The Radium. Been around long enough, been real always.
Xai-Xai. Where the intelligentsia (people who like a good drink) hang in Mellville.
Bull Run. Slightly trendy, but interesting mix of people, also stockbrokers. Sandton.
Fireman’s Arms. They’ll know your name pretty quickly. Buitengracht Street.
Ferryman’s. The neighbourhood boozer for donkey’s years, Newlands.
Kennedy’s. For more refined drinking and leather, Long Street.
Victoria Bar. The “Vic” is legend, so is the seedy street, Point Road.
Bean Bag Bohemia. One of those places that has worn-in well, good mix of people.
Sea Cottage. Named after a race-horse and survived a demolition, that’s cred.