In my extensive studies in bar culture, I have determined that there are 10 specific kinds of bar in the world. I call them the 10 Barchetypes. And it’s time for me to tell you about them.
Notes Toward An Ontological Exploration of The Ten Barchetypes and the Flora and Fauna Found Therein.
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” (they may serve food there, but you can be damn sure none of the regulars has ever referred to it as a “gastropub”) They don’t need one. 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. It’s poetic, really.
2. The Pub
Pubs differ from dive bars in that they’re usually larger, cleaner and more tourist-friendly (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 their 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 Jag-off 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. In the unfortunate event of a karaoke night, you may actually want to consider downgrading this place’s rating from a Pub to a Plastic Bar (see #8).
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 (usually takes about a week). Such places can only exist in major metropolitan areas like New York, LA and Paris, where there’s an ample supply of either tourists looking for expensive thrills or 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 — against my will, of course — to the Ice Kube Bar in Paris where, for somewhere in the neighborhood of seventy-five dollars, 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. 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 experience called “homeless in winter,” only a hell of a lot more expensive.
While there are plenty of examples of the high concept bar gone wrong (like the Hobbit House, a freaky Tolkien-themed joint in Manila staffed by little people decked out like Bilbo Baggins), I will admit that there is a high-concept bar here and there, however, that is just too crazy and original to be dismissed as a mere gimmick. For instance, the Skeleton Bar in Gruyère, Switzerland (yes, where the cheese comes from) is a magnificent, otherworldly boneyard designed by HR Giger, the guy who won an Oscar for production design on Alien and also conceived the highly controversial Dead Kennedy’s album cover, Frankenchrist. That was genius. Similarly there’s something delightfully twisted about sitting in a wheelchair sucking cocktails out of IV bags, which is precisely what goes down nightly at the Clinic Bar in downtown Singapore. And while I’ve not been there myself, I hear the vodka martinis at the coffin-shaped Eternity Bar in Truskavets, Ukraine are to die for. But for every Skeleton Bar, there are ten Rodeo Bars and ten Waikiki Wallys. Bottom line is, when in doubt, stay the fuck away.
4. Hotel Bars
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. Vertically Challenged Bars
Not just physically, of course. I’m also speaking demographically, here. These bars — all located more than six feet under — cater to a specific clientele, i.e. bikers, leather enthusiasts, oenophiles, fur wearers, dwarfs, furry dwarfs… oh, and fans of 80s synth-pop bands. 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. “I just can’t get enough” indeed. That sentiment was put to the test at the DM Baar. To get an idea of what I mean (without trekking to Northern Europe) try holing up with a group of people in a dark basement with copious amounts of vodka while Songs of Faith and Devotion plays on perpetual loop at high volume. How long does it take before someone snaps? Turns out, 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 13 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 Bar
I hesitated before including this category — depending on your point of view, you could potentially lump this together with the Vertically Challenged Bars. But these are bars aimed at that vertical slice of humanity that enjoys liquor and that makes them special. And when they go wrong, they’re especially odious. Plus, there are too many of these around these days to ignore. I’m talking about the bars that purport to bring a science and purism to the creation of cocktails. Places that refer to bartending as “mixology” and have no compunction about charging you $15-$20 per drink. Listen, I have nothing against keeping tradition alive or making authentic cocktails. And many of these places are wonderful if you can afford them. But it’s extremely easy for spots like this to veer off the deep end. And 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 get me my drink. And turn off the fucking lounge music. And get me a comfortable chair.
7. Nostalgia Bars
These are old timey bars that serve classic cocktails of yesteryear (nary an appletini in sight, I assure you) and display tattered black and white photos and yellowing newspaper articles on the walls. I’ll put it another way. If there’s anyplace you can get away with wearing a fedora unironically, the nostalgia bar is it. My former editor at Playboy has my eternal gratitude for not only putting up with me this long, but also for introducing me to what was thought to be the world’s first nostalgia bar, Bill’s Gay Nineties on East 54th (which closed, sadly, about a year ago). Founded during Prohibition as a speakeasy, Bill’s paid homage to the so-called “gay” 1890s, a time when alcohol enthusiasts were reported to have had an ass-pounding amount of fun hanging out in bars. Hence the name that made my editor’s wife look twice every time it showed up on his credit card bills. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
8. Plastic Bars
My friends and I call these Karl Rove bars. Which is to say, these places have no 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
9. Live Music Joints
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 (who are always friends of the friend who dragged you there), or the fucking converse-wearing Indie rock fans who get more annoying by the second once you’re over the age of thirty. Oh and make sure you 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 actually get a drink at a live music joint is shut up and pay attention to the music. Lastly, if you must endure this pointless exercise in feigned hipness, do not wear open-toed shoes. Especially if you plan on using the bathroom.
10. Sports Bars
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 bone choking incidents. As a result, men can’t seem to get enough of these places. This is because men, while occasionally cute and cuddly, are complete assholes most of the time. And with the exception of a few really raunchy 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. Though, in fairness, I once had 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 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!
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