Occasionally, I daydream about finding a neighborhood place that resolves all of my usual pet-peeves with typical bars. An establishment like this would be unlikely to survive the cut-throat high-failure-rate world of restaurants and bars. For fun, if nothing else, this is the bar of my dreams:
Just after dinner on a Saturday evening, you enter a nondescript door set back in a clean, but unadorned retail storefront. The sign outside labels the establishment, but without ostentatiousness. The place isn’t “secret” or “hidden,” it just simply isn’t flashy. Inside, you are greeted by a well-dressed hostess, who checks your photo ID and asks whether you’d like to sit at the bar, or at a table in the lounge, or whether you’re interested in a cigar and drink on the rooftop patio. Despite the fact that you recognize the bartender, he looks busy tending to a nearly full bar, so you choose a comfortably upholstered leather seat near a window. The low-set table for two is just large enough for a few small plates and several glasses. You settle in and are handed two menus. One lists a small selection of ‘bar food’ – fried items, small salads, and sandwiches, along with several gourmet options – a seasonal cheese or charcuterie plate, red pepper bisque, bruschetta, oysters, and daily specials. The other menu, reprinted weekly, lists specialty cocktails, draft and bottled craft beers, wines by the glass (including several locally sourced), tasting flights, and the full range of spirits available for pouring or mixing. Each item, especially the more obscure craft beers, local wines, and imported whiskies, include descriptions and tasting notes as well as current prices. An insert lists bar specials such as happy hour offers and discounts on pours from bottles of whisky that are getting low. Nobody is expected to peer over the heads of bar patrons to see specials scribbled on a chalkboard.
A waitress introduces herself and sets a napkin and a glass of ice-water on the table, which you didn’t ask for. You choose an older Scotch from the discounted “Too Much Headspace” list, thus saving a few dollars. While waiting for your drink, you glance around. Two dozen small clusters of similar chairs and tables are scattered around the tastefully decorated room. Several small banquet rooms with doors adjoin the main lounge, and you can see a small party of some kind in one of them. The noise they are making is dampened by the thick walls, carpets and rugs, and noise absorption panels on the ceiling. Despite it being 8 pm on a weekend night, only the long bar is full. The music piped into the room is a mix of Jazz, classic Rock, and aging Pop hits. Tasteful, but ignorable and with a volume that doesn’t interfere with conversation. You know from prior visits that the music volume never becomes obnoxious, even late at night.
You look over the rest of the spirits menu (the waitress left both menus with you, knowing you might wish to order something else later). The single-malt Scotch selection, in particular, is extensive and thorough. There are many younger 10- and 12-year distillery bottlings, several mid-range 14-, 16-, and 18-year old choices, and a handful of rarer vintage-dated, special edition, and single-barrel whiskies from independent bottlers. The prices are all in direct proportion to the wholesale cost of the bottles, with a reasonable markup. The same applies to a smattering of other fine spirits, cognacs, calvados, a range of bourbons, and other world whiskies. The menu is constantly kept up-to-date.
Your Scotch arrives in a tulip glass, accompanied by a small glass pitcher of room-temperature water, and a bowl of assorted nuts. You know without looking that the better whiskies such as this one are kept out of direct light, and never languish longer than a few weeks with significant headspace in the bottle. You appreciate the fact that the waitress didn’t even offer ice, and that she brought the room-temperature water without being asked. You leverage a few drops of water into your whisky with a straw, and sit back to enjoy it.
Unfortunately, many of the things I dislike about the bars I’ve frequented (earsplitting music, small luxury liquors selection, inferior food, and late-night crowds) are simply strategies that are necessary for bars to stay in business. They pump in the loud music so people will focus on draining their beverages, rather than engaging in conversation. They turn up the heat and serve salty food to sell more mixed drinks and beer. They limit the selection of pricier alcohol because it’s hard to sell enough to justify the expense. Many of them also don’t make enough money from high-end liquors to warrant spending time keeping a whisky list up-to-date, or to worry about the proper storage and serving of their whiskies. Also, focusing on a younger crowd by hiring DJs, running ladies’ night specials, and serving inexpensive beer allows them to pack in people on peak nights. A hundred drunk college students on a Friday night pads the bottom line a lot better than a dozen aficionados savoring a Scotch or two.
One of my favorite TV shows, How I Met Your Mother, provides the basis for this particular fantasy. I’ve looked far and wide for a bar like MacLaren’s Pub, the hangout for the characters in the show. As is appropriate for TV, the music is never too loud for conversation, the crowds are never too big to find a table, and they inexplicably serve good Scotch when the occasion warrants it, as well as cheap beer and mediocre food. It also helps that the main characters live in an apartment above the bar. Perhaps a place like this really exists… and someday I’ll find it.