It starts with a smell.
Nothing is more important when stepping into a bar for the first time than how it smells. It should be musky, wet with just a hint of rot. There needs to be memories of perfume, bleach and dust in the air. Even bars that offer anything and everything you’d want to drink, if the odometer hasn’t spun at least a hundred thousand miles, it is still in infancy.
That’s the curse for any bar with potential when looking for respectability. New doesn’t necessarily equate better. There should be a hours of human breath mixed with beer and whiskey, laughter and sweat floating in the air. It takes time to build that living quality to a bar and some rooms are simply not ever able to develop that great smell.
The bar itself needs to be made of wood. Any other surface is just an excuse to not provide the customer with the proper place to put down a cocktail napkin to rest a drink. Wooden bars allow guests to find imperfections to run a thumbnail across to slowly pull out a piece of history. Wood remembers drinks. The bar stools do not have to be comfortable. In fact, if they are a little off it gives the patron a chance to shift their weight and maybe strike up a conversation with a stranger. The best bar stools force the guest to tilt forward just enough to fall into their drink.
A foot rail is essential. Spittoons are not but they should be.
The barman needs to be dressed appropriate. Any bartender worth their mettle starts with good shoes, decent pants and a shirt with a collar. Neckties are preferable. There should be at least a pen in the shirt pocket and any necessary tools of the trade (church keys, wine openers, etc&) on his person. Hawthorne strainers, cocktail tins, muddlers, spoons and juicers should be organized simply on the bar mats in front of the well. A hint of grey in the hair is good but gin blossoms are better.
Smiles should be easy and laughs hard but most importantly, he is present. He isn’t allowed to be distracted by sports on the television, women or a friend holding his time at the end of the bar. But equally, he is simply a blue-collar worker that pours drinks and can find things to take him away. The good ones find that balance but tip towards focusing on the guests.
If you ever come across a barman worth his salt, marry him.
In the end, the best bar is a combination of intangibles ranging from welcoming, warm, dulled, comfortable, a little loud and edgy. Bars that never have bar fights are boring—you just never want to call home a place where they sweep up teeth at the end of the night regularly. Any bar where there is no arguing is akin to drinking at home alone. There is no substitution for good conversation in a bar and good conversation means disagreement.
And a good juke box. Great bars have damn good juke boxes.
Small notes that make good bars are books behind the bar that cover a variety of subjects: sports, politics, an unabridged dictionary and a world record book. An incomplete encyclopedia is good but baseball almanacs are better. Bar bets should be settled by the barman with no use of a smart phone. There should be a cap of two or less stuffed animals mounted on the walls and no more than two pool tables. Video games are fine providing they are over 20 years old but a decent dart board that requires a driver’s license to use the dart trumps Ms. Pacman. No pinball—it’s too loud.
Granulated soap in the bathroom is a great touch.
The floor should be a combination of hexagon tiles intertwined with oak flooring. Every painting, poster or photo should be framed with the exception of the corkboard at the entrance or above the register. A decent map of the area should be mounted by the bathrooms to remind patrons where they’re getting tight.
Behind the bar, there shouldn’t be an embarrassment of riches. A wall of draft beers is too much, six selections is adequate. Well, call, premium and super premium on the big five (vodka, gin, rum, tequila, whiskey) with a handful of fun or unique liquors to round out the back bar is enough. Three wines should suffice but they should be corked and cost more than $12 a bottle. Cheap jug wine cheapens the bar. Canned beer is good but no tall boys. Bottled beer should be ice cold but not sitting in an ice-filled bucket. Trust coolers to do their job.
The fruit tray should be bright in color. You can’t have a great drink without good glassware, clean ice and fresh garnish. One look at the fruit tray will answer the other two questions very quickly.
That’s what I think a great bar should look like. I haven’t found it yet. Some come very close to hitting the mark but they come short in either the décor, the drinks or the barman. It doesn’t stop me from looking but it does make me critical of every bar I step foot into. The problem most bars face is that they simply fall short on one or all three of these criteria. It would be nice to see that perfect bar opened in Utah soon—preferably within walking distance of my house.
Ben Raskin bartends at Keys On Main. Follow him on Twitter @BennyRaskin. Listen to the podcast Trib Sports Radio. He’s a boring drinker sticking mostly to cans of cold, cheap and yellow beer with a whiskey on the side.