Interview with Jack Anderton, European Bar Guide Founder

In 2017 Jack set up the website and blog with its stated aim of ‘guiding you to the greatest pubs and bars in Europe’. But how did this come about, and where is it going?
As told to Ed Crossley.

Casting our minds back, it’s February 2017, The European Bar Guide goes live. As of today there are over 850 guide entries, but back then it launched with ‘only’ 134. What led to you making the leap?

By 2017 I had extensively travelled around Europe and after hundreds of nights out in my 20s I started to realise I had a pretty good memory for names and places from those experiences! They spanned a wide enough range it struck me I could gather these together and write about them for others. I was already dipping my toe into travel writing and have always been keen to share my knowledge if it helps improve people’s experiences. A bar guide gave an opportunity to channel that enthusiasm while looking to do something that hadn’t really been done before.

You say there hadn’t been a bar guide up until that point, however there were websites around that time that were similar, no?

Yes and no. For example, Ron Pattinson’s ‘European Beer Guide’ focused on venues where good beer was to be found. It was a Web 1.0 effort at its inception and all about helping the public find a good beer hall or pub. It remains genuinely useful even today but it doesn’t touch the huge range of other venues – wine bars, tapas, clubs, etc. Not through neglect, just because it wasn’t as big an interest of his. Also, not through any fault of his own, time passes and the content dates. Sadly several dozen or so could be marked permanently closed.

Our name – Bar Guide – makes specific that we are a guide about the venues first and foremost and it is important to us that our scope is democratic. You’ll find every kind of bar there is on the European Bar Guide – apart from bad ones, hopefully. It is not a beer guide, but beer inevitably features frequently.

In the UK a lot of pub media is focused on beer and food, with the social aspects of pubs often left as an afterthought.

True, and what a shame because you can find where the nearest cask ale is, and you can buy huge books telling you where to find good beer – which is great – but no-one warns you some of those venues are mediocre at best, not necessarily environments and spaces you want to spend your precious time. Their actual recommendation is to say ‘Go to the mediocre venue just because it has some pale ales’. Many people don’t work like that, I certainly don’t.

I find this is similar with pub food, you can find out what ‘pub’ serves Michelin star food or has Rosettes to its name but they won’t tell you they ceased being a pub in the true sense back in the 1990s and have sold out totally to becoming a dining room. So it’s about exploring the environment, why some venues are able to put you at ease.

I also don’t like pubs where you arrive only to find they aren’t really pubs anymore.

We should try to popularise ‘dining room’ or at least call those place restaurants and restrict the use of pub to any venue that has some space simply for socialising and drinking. This isn’t just an English problem, in Lille some of the most characterful venues are its Estaminets. Wonderful spots but you can’t simply turn up for a drink – so they aren’t eligible for inclusion on our guide. In Germany and Czechia the grey area over what is a pub and what is a restaurant is murkier still.

World’s Best 50 Bars’ and ‘Best Bars Europe’ come up when searching for similar projects to The European Bar Guide. Are you concerned they might be covering the same turf as you?

Other such as the corporate ‘World’s Best 50 Bars’, or ‘Best Bars Europe’ do a good job but within a narrow range. The former is focused specifically on high-end cocktail bars and that’s it. So, where are the rock clubs, the great down and dirty dive bars, the oddities, the venues that just fall into the gaps? Aren’t we all part of society and shouldn’t we all be part of this conversation? So we thought: how about a resource for bars that gives them equal weight; that says “you may not like a smoky bar that’s falling to bits with two crappy drinks available – but others will absolutely love the authenticity, character and fun of such places”, while addressing the flipside of that argument too – you may think hi-spec décor and world class cocktails are pretentious, but here we believe they can be part of an amazing venue others rightly find special.

For a long time people relied on guide book recommendations and more recently have turned to lifestyle blog posts and social media influencers to know where to go when they arrive in a new city.

That’s right, yet both options are fairly flawed and leave big gaps. Guide book recommendations play it safe and don’t encourage much exploration. We wish to help visitors move on from ex-pat Irish Pubs and safety first ‘bar and grill’ type places guide books recommend, so we deliberately recommend venues that would seldom feature on those. Those shouldn’t lose out because their style is more Marmite – some people might hate them, but conversely we’d rather risk that to make sure those who will love them know where they are.

In respect of blogs, they can be very useful but you must remember you are viewing somewhere unknown through a prism of someone else’s likes and dislikes as well as the audience they are targeting. The Culture Trip is purposefully aspirational: light, clean, immaculately presented – also likely to completely ignore a huge part of the market because it doesn’t fit the audience they are aiming at. If you’re into rock or metal bars, or smokey old boozers, or simply want to ‘do what the locals do’ you’ll get little out of it in terms of bars. If you’re in Austria and want to find the perfect Instagram worthy plate of sushi you might be in luck with a site like that.

What about your own preferences?

I have preferred styles, no doubt about that, but I don’t ignore the others… that would defeat the object! The question we pose is: “Is this venue a good example of the style?” I look for authenticity, for personalised, distinctive formats, a sense of institution and belonging that strikes you from the moment you walk in, and a disregard for fly-by-night trends and the corporate. If they manage that and rustle up some nice drinks that’s a great start. It isn’t absolute though. There are some corporately-financed, expensive, demographic-led operations that are extremely well executed and you have to praise it when it works.

You have a cut off point for which venues make or don’t make the guide don’t you? Tell us a bit about how that works.

To be included a bar has to be rated 7.5/10 or higher. That isn’t to say every visit you make will be a guaranteed 7.5/10 on every visit, but by giving a bar that score we’re intending to convey that ‘if you like bars like this, you’re in for good quality experience if you go at the right time of day/week’. If we rate a bar 9/10 or above, that’s an indication it’s much more likely to be good almost whenever you go because there will be either a wider range of qualities that make it so, or something quintessential that stands out above the norm.

What is that 7.5/10 score based on? You have a criteria for that, right?

Yes, so we consider: A) Quality and/or range of drinks B) Style and décor C) Character and atmosphere D) Amenities & Events/Community Value and E) Value for Money. Our Criteria section explains more.

So a bar can make your guide even if it is highly deficient in one or two areas?

(Laughs) Yes. It’s possible for a bar to sell 1 drink and still be guide-worthy. This boggles some people’s minds. It’s possible, although I don’t think it’s happened yet, for a bar to simply be a plain room and still be included. It’s possible for there to be nothing to do except sit, drink and chat and still be a great pub. It is after all people who make a huge impact and become part of the tapestry of a night out. Also, yes, there are some venues which are inescapably very expensive. By contrast a good venue can become a standout if it offers rare value for money.

What makes you the sole arbiter of a good bar then?

I’m certainly not the only voice that goes into European Bar Guide! As well as a network of close confidants, we receive recommendations from all over. If we like the look of those, they are starred as blue on the site map (on our home page) for everyone’s benefit. You will see Recommended Venues in blue and Verified Venues in yellow, these are when we have personally visited and seen they are up to scratch. The more help we have, the more reliable the content will be, it’s that simple.

You obviously need some skill or eye for this though, right?

Or you just need to be one of the few people actually trying and so get away with being ordinary at it… :0)

What does it involve for you? Presumably you aren’t stood there with a clipboard checking things off?

I can just imagine what the tapsters in a few Czech pubs would say if they saw that…

My view is that you turn up to have a good time first and foremost. If you’re having a good time you can reflect on what the venue is adding to your experience without stepping out of being in that moment. The important thing is recognising that can be had in a pub in a wide range of circumstances, anything from solo sinking into the furniture in some candlelit Amsterdam brown café just as it can be dancing in a great live music venue. Our guide – unlike every other one going in my opinion – recognises that all these different kinds of venues and experience are valid. We don’t ignore them because they don’t tick marketing boxes, far from it, we try to amplify and exhibit the venues that miss out for those reasons.

Visiting some of these venues for the first time must involve a deep intake of breath. What makes you want to enter some locals’ den when you can’t speak the language and you don’t know anyone?

The thought of finding something truly authentic, whether that’s a style of service or a rhythm to the venue that stands out or a traditional particular to the place. This can be a Spanish tapas bar or it could be a knife-thrower in Hungary.

What the hell is that?

You mean you haven’t checked our Glossary?

Kesdobalo, or ‘Knife-thrower’ refers to the type of venue where once of a day Hungarian men had to poke their heads through the curtain at the entrance to see if a fight was about to kick off. If so, they would take their wives or girlfriend elsewhere.

7 years on the bar hunt:

Do you get nervous at all being alone in those environments?

Less and less. It’s about anticipation. When you have a venue you know you want to visit, it seems more stupid to have gone all that way only to back out through nerves. I have had experiences in the past where I’ve frozen, either because the waiting staff at firing phrases at me in a different language, or there’s no space to sit and so no refuge. In Cheb in 2016 I walked past a fantastic pub filled with young people, the sort of place I would rave about, but backed out of going in as the idea of standing out in there made me too anxious. That wouldn’t happen today. I can use the nervous energy to help break the ice and ultimately a communication barrier isn’t the end of the world. An exception is perhaps tapas bars which are so naturally social you look like a pariah – or even worse – milling about on your own like a spare part. I prefer being with my partner or in a group for those. By contrast, I can happily travel around brooding old Polish bars or Czech hospodas on my own – no problem.

Tell us about the best and worst experiences on your travels….

One of the best was, by total chance, meeting writer Ian Mcdonald in Lublin. He was over for a comic convention and had some local chaperones showing him the sights. We met in a craft beer bar called U Fotografa (which sadly closed a couple of years afterwards, although has reopened in a different location). The pub featured rotating cameras inset into the walls and offered every craft beer style under the sun. We got chatting and the next thing you know we’re going on a day trip to a historic town (Kazimierz Dolny) the following day, and giving each other drunken bear hug farewells at 3 in the morning. Those are experiences you never forget and would never happen unless you put yourself in those situations.

Worst one? BO Baras in Kaunas sticks out. The pub was great, at that time a down to earth, funky, but not aspirational or social climbing student hangout. Problem was, I was struggling with an upset stomach and there only to slowly nurse a drink. I meet a local, which should have been a positive, but we proceed to have a torturous, flat conversation. He isn’t interested in me, I am tired and probably boring him to death, but even after that point he still tries to get me to a strip club. It just seems like the most listless interaction I have ever had.

The strip club didn’t happen I take it.

God no.

Tell us about some of the weirdest places you’ve visited?

Weird means lots of things. There’s a pub in Bristol, Bag O Nails with 15+ cats, another one up the road, Highbury Vaults with a train set running around the perimeter of the pub. There is, or should I say was – it’s recently closed – a tiny bar called Paka Pub in Wroclaw where you were surrounded by a giant lizard sculpture stalking across 4 walls. Calgary Antik Bar in Budapest is an elderly woman with a brain damaged dog and a fluffy cat. You drink in amongst her collection of possessions, it’s rather like slipping into a dream state. Retsins Lucifernum in Bruges is much more affected, staged and camp gothic yet still totally and utterly bizarre, hilarious and brilliant. Dracula’s Butler dropping his trousers at middle-aged women, dozens of portraits with pinholes for eyes, and amazing Pisco Sours by the Peruvian lady who works the bar. Kulminator in Antwerp is a husband and wife team who will turn you away if you say ‘drink’ instead of ‘taste’ at their front door, their living room is becoming impossibly filled with clutter, and Dirk is mostly found chuntering or laid out flat on the bench but it is the most charming place and a labour of love. That type of venue can only become what it is through generations of dedication.

Having seen all of these things, what still gets you excited about this project? Is it a ‘grass is always greener’ thing?

I’m really interested in survivors, people running the kind of place where 95% shut down years ago, and the remaining few are due to go extinct. Without fail I find there has been an outstanding reason why that is, either incredible people, incredible venues or both. Capturing that magic while the venue is still open is a special experience, albeit bittersweet knowing that I may never get to return.

There are such places still in Belgium, England, Spain etc, they are part of our folk culture. No Greene King renovation could ever make anything like the backroom in Fagans, Sheffield, for example. When things like that go, they will never come back. That makes something as mundane as a room with some chairs in become gold dust. Because they have that special something, the genius loci (a useful term you sometimes see insecurely name-dropped) and that is priceless. It’s the importance of being distinctive – which we wrote about a few years back.

I’m also interested in new movements – for instance: will craft beer bars find a way of moving on from the template they’ve been using for 20 years and innovate, or will they also become a sort of historical document of a particular era? If they manage to innovate, will that come from somewhere unexpected like central and Eastern Europe rather than the UK where our brewers are still perched at Land’s End with a pair of binoculars trying to work out what Americans are doing.

Lastly, there are always bars I’ve missed for whatever reason, and new bars to find which are just as wonderful as those I’ve already visited. And there are bars to return to and rejoice in their continuing presence. In the last 12-13 months I’ve visited 14 of the top 25 or so in our list, most not as part of any pilgrimage but just as a happy consequence of being somewhere.

I also have to visit places familiar to others – Scandinavia, a few capital cities it may shock you we haven’t been to yet.

Go on?

Rome, Copenhagen, Stockholm…

Surely not…

Oh yes. We can’t be everywhere at once, which is why it is so important that people see themselves as part of the European Bar Guide as well and tell us – please – about great bars near them so that we can build this great resource. Get in touch, we’re on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, etc.

On that note, what are your future plans and where do you see this going?

We are slowly but surely creating a page for every single bar we have personally added to the guide (over 850) and during 2023 that should go live. This will transform the site because instead of sending you off to Google you will have a lot of relevant information at your fingertips contained within the site.

Our Top 100 feature was very popular and still drives a lot of traffic even though it’s from 2019. After the Covid-hiatus we are going to bring that back this year.

We are also adding more to our Days Out feature which is very popular. People taking weekend breaks really get a lot from those.

In terms of growth, I would obviously like to transition from hobbyist to full-time writer. What that looks like and whether it directly involves this site, I am not sure. However, I have a plan involving Prague Pubs….

You always seem to have a plan involving Prague Pubs….

(Laughs) They are the alpha and omega aren’t they? I was only reminded yesterday what a density of pubs the city has versus almost anywhere else in Europe. But yes, the plan is an e-book showing Prague as a city in 110 pubs. Hopefully that will create interest and begin the process of making a small return from my input. There are a few efforts about, such as the ‘Pisshead’s Guide’ created by Max Bahnson (Pivni Filosof), but my book isn’t intending to move onto that territory, but to be a little more formal and cross-cultural, while also giving a healthy bit of space for the putykas, pajzls and 4th Grade hospodas around the city too which would never normally feature in anything like that. In short, to create the book I would dearly have liked to find when I first visited Prague.

Which was when?


Last question: How’s your liver?

Better than my back.