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On Bars

September 23, 2011

Before we begin, I need to briefly mention three pieces of business first. Only two of which relate to today’s post.
1) Make sure you have October 1, reserved  for the Tour de Donut – more details Monday
2) Mrs. Fussy is traveling today, so all misspellings and grammatical failings are my own
3) I’ve been battling a head cold for the better part of this week and taking lots of medicine

Surely you will be surprised to hear that I’m a fairly cautious guy.

Given my predilection for not taking unnecessary risks, while I’m self medicating with over-the-counter painkillers and behind-the-counter antihistamines, I have been avoiding wine, beer and spirits. This put a bit of a damper on my weekly cocktail post, until I realized there is a part of drinking that we’ve never really discussed. And that’s bars.

The only problem is that this topic is immense. So like everything else on the FLB, I’ll break it down into bite sized chunks, hopefully you all will lend your voices, and together we’ll debate and celebrate what makes some bars great while others don’t quite rate.

Here’s something to ponder. Can I love a bar that cannot make a decent Manhattan?

Despite my love for a well constructed classic cocktail, my favorite bars have not been those temples created to faithfully serve and resurrect the potions of the past. Nor are my favorite places the ones that are on the cutting edge of cocktailery, thinking of ways to make drinks evolve as they sit in your glass.

Looking back to the bars I’ve loved over time, they were all pretty old, and they all had character. Some of them were dives, while others were decidedly not.

Tobacco Road in Miami was an interesting place. At lunch and after work it catered to the downtown set. But as the hour grew on, there were fewer suits and khaki pants, and more denim and leather jackets. Tobacco Road back in the mid 1990s also had a single malt scotch and small batch bourbon list, in addition to a special on the scotch and bourbon of the week. It was here, that I really first started to explore these fine spirits, and here where I had my first sips of Bookers.

Bookers isn’t quite like the Laphroaig of bourbon, it’s not quite as polarizing. But it does come at you with a similar barrel-fisted intensity that many may not find pleasurable.

This was a comfortable bar that I would go to and sample amazing spirits.

Back when I attended the University of Pennsylvania, right in the center of campus was a bar. It’s now long gone, and it’s an honest to goodness tragedy. The place was called the Palladium, and to a poor college student, it seemed quite expensive at the time. But inside the stone walls, there was a large fireplace with a gorgeous and plush leather couch, where you could sit an enjoy a drink.

Going to the Palladium was a real treat. And I would only go there in the middle of the day on occasions when I needed sanctuary from the world outside. On the weekends the place was a zoo, but midday I had the place to myself.

Depending on my mood and the weight of my wallet, I would either have a bottle of Sam Smith’s or a snifter of relatively cheap cognac. Sometimes I would sit by the fire. Other times, I would sit by the window and watch the world go by.

This bar always provided me with a restorative escape.

Setting out on my own, my friends and I found an apartment together in Oakland, California. In our neighborhood there was an Irish bar. The name above the door said The Kerry House. My friends re-christened it The Scary House. But I loved it in there.

Timmy was the wizened old bartender, who whenever he got a few extra dollars in the tip jar, would put them in the jukebox and play some classic Irish folk music. The walls were bedecked with group pictures of the IRA. Regulars came in at breakfast time, and sat at the bar stooped over their bottles of Budweiser all day.

But it was these regulars who befriended me on my very first visit to their community. That same night I met a woman who took a liking to me, although I’m fairly sure she was a man; I saw two young girls make out in front of a guy known simply as “Hippie” to tease and torment him; and they even decided to give me my very own nickname, “Steely Dan.”

This was a place to go and drink beer in bottles or something poured from a bottle into a glass.

In San Francisco, the bartenders at Tosca could totally make classic cocktails. It was an old bar in North Beach. I always liked to describe it as an Opera Bar, since they had an old Wurlitzer filled with arias. But most of the time, I came here for their House Cappuccino, which wasn’t really a cappuccino at all. Rather, it was a small glass of steamed hot cocoa topped with brandy.

It was perfect for taking the nip out of the cold San Francisco air and evoking a bygone era.

My favorite bars have been a lot of things. But they have never been places to get sloshed or act like an imbecile. None of them have been scenes of any kind, and the very notion of standing in line to get into a bar drives me batty. Right now, I don’t have one. If I lived in Troy, The Ruck or The Ale House might be in the running. But one’s favorite bar needs to be a bit closer to home.

For better or for worse, I don’t get out to bars much these days anyhow. But I do miss having a good comfortable place away from home.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. September 23, 2011 8:21 am

    Heh, the only bar in town that would afford me that comfort is the same travel time away as The Ruck, and so now that’s usually where I end up.

  2. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    September 23, 2011 10:30 am

    One’s age has a profound effect on one’s perception of a bar and surrounding activity; more than most other factors, I suspect.
    I’d also like to put in a good word for traditional English pubs, which often had one brand of draught, usually in three varieties: bitter, best bitter, and porter. Or you could get a lemon shandy. Lived in London for a while in 1986.

  3. September 23, 2011 11:39 am

    There’s a very simple solution here: build a home bar :)

  4. northcountryrambler permalink
    September 23, 2011 1:17 pm

    Now we’re talkin bout something I know intimately – a good saloon. I’ll observe that your memories are infused not just with the actual “bar” but with “regulars” that really made the place unique. A nice “home bar” always lacks that one necessary component – the local regulars – which for me are more important than what they stock on the back bar. Should you stop in Schroon Lake on a Friday at cocktail hour, I’ll be the tall one at the end of the bar at Flanagan’s. A man’s home may be his castle, but his bar is his sanctuary.

  5. September 23, 2011 2:53 pm

    I’m my own best regular.

    I agreed, however. The best part of most taverns is the social aspect of hobnobbing with the locals, and perhaps even becoming one yourself. I’ve found more and more that it’s less about the decor or the drink list and really the clientele that makes a great bar experience.

  6. September 23, 2011 9:30 pm

    The best bar I ever experienced was the Midway in Claremont, California right on Route 66 (“midway” between Los Angeles and San Bernardino). It was a volatile mix of 48% bikers, 48% college kids, and 4% celebrities who came to speak at the colleges and wanted to get a little local color. Unfortunately somebody torched it c. 1990.

    For 15 years I lived within 100 feet of the Toronado at Haight and Steiner in San Francisco. The selection of brews truly was awesome yet I did not spend nearly as much time as I should have because the acoustics were so bad one could not hear oneself drink.

    Now I am in Saratoga and, I guess like Mr. Sunshine, I find the local establishments more scary than promising. An exception being 9 Maple where the conversation is between you and your single malt, not between you and the bellowing guy swinging the pipe.

  7. September 24, 2011 10:04 pm

    “Steely Dan”, I’d have never guessed. Fussy from the get-go, eh?

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