The day before writing this we noticed on a Facebook group our guide was being criticised for not being something it was ever trying to be – a beer guide. Not the first time that has happened.
As we’ve always tried to point out, our guide aims to be the first guide to review any type of bar, simply to judge how effective they are at what they’re trying to be. If they have other strings to their bow, even better!
The reason we took this approach isn’t just in order to reach and be of use to a wider audience, but to invite people to reflect on their own preferences and to be curious about the range of experiences around them. After all, going to these bars opened our eyes, so why not others?
When it comes to bars, can their value be detached from the products they offer?
Let’s review two examples. Sorry to single these out, but it seems a good way to illustrate this:
Product: 🍻 Mels Diner 🇦🇹 in Vienna.
Here is a craft beer bar, a US-style taproom/diner hybrid with one of Vienna city centre’s better selections on tap and in bottle. If you follow Ratebeer or Untappd for example, there’s no doubt here is where they’ll tell you to go (among a few other venues). The bar in terms of product is pretty solid, including its food repertoire. The experience however is where it falls short. Poorly ventilated, poor acoustics, kind but sometimes erratic service, décor that is a paean to generica – it could be anywhere in the world, and that actually seems to be the point. The killer blow (at least to an inclusion on our guide) is a sterility to the atmosphere, even when busy.
For now, the experience at Mel’s is put to one side by people because the product is clearly above average and as there aren’t many similar options nearby, they attract their custom almost by default. However, place this venue in a city with a lot of competition, and it would drop a few places into an also-ran position. It is a middling to decent bar with a bigger fridge and more keg lines than average.
Experience: Calgary Antik Drinkbar 🇭🇺 in Budapest.
An independently run little Boazn with an elderly owner, Auntie Viki. Starting with the product: the drinks selections are as basic as they come. Macro lager (in cans) and a choice of cobweb flecked spirits. The only way you’ll be distracted by the drinks is by wondering if they’re safe to consume. There is not much product here really, except the most perfunctory required to actually describe itself as a bar. But the experience is where the venue comes alive.
Individual and eccentric, the bar is somewhat like wandering into an old lady’s living room midway through spring cleaning. Piles of dresses and flowery adornments everywhere, soft furnishings, a fluffy cat and a brain-damaged dog. Locals and tourists visit here because of the warmth and welcome, the authenticity and loyalty, to recognise its spirit of endurance in a brutal world. To be allowed inside the venue in the first place requires the scrutiny and consent of the owner, who then welcomes you in as her guest in her own eccentric, doddering way. Conversation is in Hungarian or broken German, but somehow it all muddles through.
One is safe, one provides product. They hammer out a 6 or 7/10 almost every time.
One is riskier, weirder, more unfamiliar, unlike anywhere you will have been on Earth, but curious, individual, charming, eccentric and potentially bags of fun. It provides memories. For you it may be a 9, for someone else a 3 or 4. When you read the reviews online, some get it, and some just don’t.
These two venues highlight the fundamental problem of only using product as the barometer to rate bars.
As a tourist, one visiting a city for the first time, which would you pick?
At the very least, shouldn’t the answer be: both?