As you’ve probably gathered by now, I go to a lot of bars. It’s a by-product of being a member in good standing of the international boozing press.
Over the years, certain similarities have emerged between these bars. Upon noticing this I immediately realized further research was in order. Several weeks later I remembered what the similarities were again. And the process started all over again. It’s like the circle of life, only drunker.
And now, after two full decades of remembering to try to figure it out, I have done it. I have determined that there are precisely 10 kinds of bars in the world. I call them the Barchetypes. And to give the last 20 years of my drinking some modicum of meaning, I’m going to tell them you about them.
Notes Toward an Ontological Exploration of the Ten Barchetypes and the Flora and Fauna Pertaining Thereunto
1: The Neighborhood Dive
The neighborhood dive is a no frills joint owned and operated by a native son with a name like Sully or Mac. These bars are open every day from 6 a.m. til 2 a.m. (4 a.m. in New York) and cater to a tightly knit, fiercely loyal clientele that revel in the camaraderie, cheap drinks and proximity to home. Beyond being a temple of worship for the local sports franchises, a neighborhood dive doesn’t purport to have a “concept” or “theme.” There is no food to speak of, save for some pretzels on the bar (those who dislike e. coli are advised to stay away), a pegboard filled with individual packages of chips and perhaps a jar filled with pickled eggs (I dare you). With the possible exception of replacing a worn-out dartboard or updating the jukebox selections every decade or so, neighborhood dives don’t keep up with the times. They are enduring reminders that the more things change, the more working class drinkers remain the same. They are places of poetry and I love them dearly. They are also the kinds of places where you see signs like the one I snapped over on the right at P&J’s in my dear old Philly.
2: The Pub
Pubs differ from dive bars in that they’re usually larger, cleaner and more tourist-tolerant (and when I say tourist, I mean anyone who didn’t grow up within a three-block radius of the place). They tend to be cozy spots where a lot of drinking still gets done, but you’re far less likely to see someone projectile vomit on his wife, get beat up by a Teamster, collapse and die of liver failure, or put their shit-digits in the pretzel barrel. Most pubs offer good beer, reasonably priced drinks and greasy cheeseburgers that taste awesome after midnight. The Cool-People-to-Total-Jagoff ratio in these places tends to hover around 10-to-1. Disregard this ratio, however, if said pub has a karaoke night. In this case the ratio reverses. Depending on the frequency of said karaoke night, you may actually want to consider downgrading this place’s rating from a Pub to a Plastic Bar (see #7).
3: The High Concept Bar
These are built upon a central idea that is sometimes clever, but more often tiresome once the novelty has worn off (this process usually takes about a week). These typically sprout up in major metropolitan areas like New York, LA and Paris where there’s an ample supply of either a) tourists looking for expensive thrills or b) arrogant twits who believe they’re more sophisticated than the average beer-swilling Philistine and feel the need to prove it by embracing the latest in nightlife novelties. For example, I was once dragged by a publicist to the Ice Kube Bar in Paris where, for somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 dollars (luckily I wasn’t paying), I got to dress up like an arctic explorer and spend 20 minutes doing Grey Goose shooters inside a bleak frozen chamber made entirely of ice (as evidenced by the pic on the right). The publicist maintained that freezing my dick off just to catch a buzz was an “authentic experience like no other.” Funny, it seemed an awful lot like another highly authentic experience called “homeless in winter,” only a hell of a lot more expensive.
4: The Hotel Bar
These come in many shapes and sizes, but have one defining characteristic that unites them. Hotel Bars are always located within stumbling distance of a bedroom. And that means possibilities. Not all of them good ones.
5: The Vertical Bar
These are places that cater to a highly specific clientele, i.e. bikers, leather enthusiasts, oenophiles, fur wearers, midgets, furry midgets, or fans of ’80s synth-pop bands. I mention that last one because once, while in the Estonian capital city of Tallinn, I went to a subterranean watering hole called the DM Baar that is devoted entirely to the musical stylings of Depeche Mode. As it turns out I just can get enough of the DM Baar. To avoid the trek to northern Europe, you can simulate this for yourself by holing up with 30 people and several bottles of vodka in a dark basement while “Songs of Faith and Devotion” plays on perpetual loop at high volume. How long does it take before someone snaps? If you’re part of the regular clientele, never. If you’re a lonely, horny, vodka-soaked booze journalist dicking around Eastern Europe, however, the answer is 26 minutes and 53 seconds. I seriously considered calling the consulate and ordering a daisycutter strike just to be sure we stopped the infection before it could spread.
6: The Full Of Itself
This category was the subject of some debate between me and my editor. He wanted to put The Full Of Itself in with the Vertical Bars. He is a heathen. I say that because these bars are specifically aimed at that vertical slice of humanity that enjoys liquor, they deserve a category all their own. Plus, there are too many of them around these days to ignore. I’m talking, of course, about the bars that purport to bring a science and a purism and a sense of history to the creation of cocktails. In these places you’ll often hear bartending referred to as “mixology.” You are also very likely to be charged $15-$20 per drink. Which is great when they’re great. But their trendlet has attracted poseurs, and when these places are bad, they are deeply hideous. Because the last thing you want when you’re trying to enjoy a relaxing drink is either smug superiority from the bartender or a member of the waitstaff insisting on telling you about the fair-trade origin of the drink’s agave syrup. Shut the hell up and make with the alcohol fetching. And turn off the fucking lounge music. Oh and a comfortable chair would be nice. I should reiterate that many of these places are wonderful and employ some of my favorite people in the world. Some I’ve been known to enjoy are New York City’s Death and Co., LA’s The Doheney, San Francisco’s Bourbon and Branch, and Chicago’s Violet Hour. Oh, and London’s famed Milk and Honey, where I shot this little nugget of self-loathing.
7: The Plastic Bar
My friends and I sometimes call these Karl Rove bars. Which is to say, The Plastic Bar was born without a soul. You might know them as fern bars, or yuppie bars or “that place with the frozen daiquiri machine.” But while they may not have authenticity on their side, they do have booze, so let’s not get too hung up on technicalities. Treat your plastic bar the same way you’d treat a museum exhibit. Speak softly, don’t touch anything and leave as quickly as possible. You may have sex with things you find inside the plastic bar, but only once.
8: The Strip Club
Ah, where to begin? Mandatory two-drink minimums for watered down cocktails in plastic shot-glasses at 15 dollars a pop. Or 20 dollar glasses of fruit punch masquerading as Mai Tais that you’re obliged to buy the stripper who’s charging you 20 more for every three minutes of grinding robotically on your lap to some suggestive hip-hop song from 10 years ago. Throw in all manner of creeps, pimps, punks and skanks and what have you got? A multi-billion-dollar industry that generates more money per year than theater, opera, ballet, jazz and classical music concerts combined. Which I’m kind of relieved about, quite frankly. Because a world in which people pay more to see an anorexic perform a pirouette than they do to see a ripe pair of titties is no world I want to live in. Still, if you’re looking to get any kind of serious drinking done, don’t do it here unless you just sold your tech startup to Google.
9: The Live Music Joint
These places barely qualify as bars because trying to order a drink is a lot like trying to secure a bowl of gruel in a Calcutta soup kitchen. Be prepared to hold your own against a crush of sweaty alcohol-starved humanity. Then there’s the aural assault that is the experimental ragecore quartet (see also: friends of the friend who dragged you there) and the converse-wearing Indie rock fans who get exponentially more annoying for every minute you age past 30. Bring throat lozenges as you’ll be screaming “WHAT?” at the top of your lungs most of the evening, not just because the music is loud but because the only thing fewer people do than pine for a drink at a live music joint is shut up and pay attention to the music. Do not, under any circumstances wear open-toed shoes to the Live Music Joint. Especially if you plan on using the bathroom.
10: The Sports Bar
In addition to being the barchetype responsible for the second-highest number of divorces, sports bars are also a factor in a large number of DUI arrests, full-scale brawls, illegal gambling rings and chicken wing choking incidents. As a result, men can’t seem to get enough of them. This is because men, while occasionally sweet and erudite, are complete assholes most of the time. And with the exception of a few really messed up sex clubs, there’s nowhere a man can tap into his inner-asshole more completely than a place where the menus are shaped liked goalie masks and feature meals named after ballparks and Heisman Trophy winners. In fairness, I did once have a transcendent dining experience at a Hooters in South Florida—though I have a suspicion that it owes something to the fact that the Eagles were winning against the Giants in a divisional round playoff game, and that Sandra our waitress insisted on sitting in my lap every time she came to check that we had enough beer. It’s possible those things made me elevate my Pasta Testaverde with marinara sauce and peppers to legendary status. But Mama mia, what a meal!
The Imbiber is Dan Dunn, the country’s preeminent rockstar booze writer. His upcoming book, Living Loaded: A tale of sex, salvation and the pursuit of the never-ending happy hour, will be released by Random House in January 2011. Follow him on Twitter.